Congress expands health accounts

Published December 11, 2006

WASHINGTON - Republican lawmakers, with little public debate, added a billion-dollar health care benefit to legislation that was rushed through Congress just before it adjourned Saturday morning.

The provision, included in a huge tax-cut measure, expands the amount of money that can be contributed tax-free to so-called Health Savings Accounts. The accounts can be used to pay medical bills and for other health-related coverage.

The legislation allows anyone to shelter thousands of dollars annually in HSAs, regardless of how much that person pays for a health insurance deductible. Current law limits HSA contributions to the amount of a person's deductible. The expansion would cost the government $1-billion in lost taxes over the next decade.

Democrats, who will take control of Congress next month, have generally opposed the expansion. But supporters said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., championed it.

A coalition of corporate organizations also pushed for the legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the American Bankers Association, the Business Roundtable and several insurance companies belonged to the coalition, according to Paul Dennett, vice president for health policy of the American Benefits Council, a participant in the group.