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HSA vs PPO: which is best for you?

Understand the key differences, advantages, and considerations of HSAs and PPO to make an informed decision about your healthcare. Whether you're an individual, a family, or an employer, our guide provides clear, expert insights to help you choose the health plan that best fits your needs and budget.

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Choosing the right health insurance plan can be a critical decision, impacting your financial well-being and healthcare quality.

As an employee, navigating through the array of options, including Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs), or even a combination of both, is not an easy task.

This article delves into the nuances of HSAs, PPOs, and the considerations that matter most to you. From tax advantages to provider flexibility, we'll help you make informed choices about your health and financial well-being.

Key takeaways

  • HSAs are specialized financial accounts designed to manage and save for medical expenses, offering a triple tax advantage.
  • PPOs balance flexibility and cost control, providing a broad network of preferred healthcare providers and nationwide coverage.
  • Deciding between an HSA and a PPO involves evaluating factors such as healthcare utilization, chronic conditions, budget, tax implications, and employer contributions.

What is an HSA?

A Health Savings Account (HSA) is a specialized financial account designed to help employees manage and save for qualified medical expenses while enjoying significant tax advantages.

To be eligible for an HSA, you must be covered by a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), a specific type of health insurance plan with higher deductibles and lower premiums compared to traditional plans.

Contributions to an HSA can be made by both employees and, in some cases, their employers. These contributions are tax-deductible, reducing the employees' taxable income. The funds within an HSA can be used to pay for a wide range of qualified medical expenses, including doctor visits, prescription medications, dental care, and more.

HSAs are portable, meaning they belong to the individual, and the funds can be carried over from year to year. This contrasts Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), which have a use-it-or-lose it-rule.

HSA funds can be invested in various financial instruments, allowing for potential growth over time. People sometimes use HSAs to save for retirement due to their portability and tax advantages.

Note that Health Savings Accounts are sometimes confused with Healthcare Spending Accounts, a different account type that uses the same acronym (HSA). Healthcare Spending Accounts are actually a type of FSA, and are sometimes called Healthcare FSAs.

Learn more about the different FSA plans.

What is a PPO?

A Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) is a type of health insurance plan that offers employees a balance between flexibility and cost control. PPOs have a network of preferred healthcare providers, including doctors, specialists, hospitals, and other medical facilities.

The main advantage of PPOs is the flexibility they afford to employees in choosing healthcare providers. Unlike Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), PPOs don’t require members to choose a primary care physician or obtain referrals for specialist care. Members have the freedom to schedule appointments directly with specialists and access a wide range of medical services without the need for a gatekeeper.

While PPO members are encouraged to use in-network providers to benefit from lower out-of-pocket costs, PPOs also provide the option to seek care outside the network, albeit at a higher cost. If a PPO member chooses to receive care from a provider outside the designated network, the insurance plan may still cover a portion of the costs, but the member will likely face higher deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance.

Cost-sharing is a fundamental aspect of PPOs. Employees typically pay lower out-of-pocket costs when utilizing in-network services, making it more financially advantageous to stay within the preferred provider network.

PPOs are known for their nationwide coverage, making them suitable for individuals who travel frequently or have residences in different locations. Employees can access in-network providers across a broader geographic area, ensuring healthcare services are available wherever they may be.

What are the benefits of an HSA?

HSAs offer three key benefits, triple tax advantage, portability, and investment and savings opportunities. Let’s explore each.

If you want to see how HSAs compare to Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), another type of tax-advantaged health plan, check out HSA vs HRA.

Triple tax advantage

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) offer a triple tax advantage, making them a powerful financial tool. Tax advantages are applied in three stages:

  • Contributions are tax-deductible or made on a pre-tax basis, reducing taxable income. 
  • Any interest or investment gains grow tax-free within the HSA.
  • When funds are withdrawn for qualified medical expenses, withdrawals are also tax-free. 

This three-tiered tax efficiency provides immediate financial relief, allows for potential growth, and ensures tax-free usage of funds for healthcare expenses, making HSAs a strategic choice for both short-term and long-term financial planning.


The second key advantage HSAs offer is portability.

While some employer-sponsored benefits are tied to specific employment conditions, HSAs belong to the individual. This means that even if you change jobs or retire, your HSA stays with you.

The portability of the HSA ensures ongoing access to accumulated funds, allowing for consistent contributions, withdrawals, and utilization of the account for various healthcare needs. This feature contributes to the long-term reliability of the HSA as a financial resource throughout different stages of life.

Investment and savings opportunities

HSAs go beyond serving as a mere repository for immediate healthcare expenses; they also present opportunities for long-term savings and investment growth.

Some HSA providers offer the option to invest account funds in a variety of financial instruments, such as mutual funds or stocks. By doing so, account holders have the potential to achieve increased returns on their contributions over time.

This dual-purpose function transforms HSAs into dynamic financial tools, allowing individuals not only to address current healthcare costs but also to strategically build savings for future medical needs, including those in retirement.

Embracing the investment opportunities within an HSA empowers individuals to take a proactive and forward-looking approach to their financial well-being.

What are the benefits of a PPO?

PPOs have less to offer overall than HSAs, but they can still be a valuable tool for keeping your healthcare costs in check. Let’s explore the three major benefits of PPOs.

Provider flexibility

PPOs offer a degree of provider flexibility, allowing members to choose healthcare professionals without the need for referrals. While not as expansive as the triple tax advantages of HSAs, this feature allows for a more straightforward approach to accessing medical services.

Predictable cost structure

PPOs provide a relatively predictable cost structure with lower deductibles and copayments, compared to the potential for higher out-of-pocket costs associated with HSAs. This predictability can be beneficial for individuals who prefer steadier and more immediate cost control.

Out-of-network coverage

Unlike the comprehensive investment opportunities within HSAs, PPOs offer out-of-network coverage, albeit at a higher cost. This can be advantageous for individuals who prioritize the option to seek care outside the network, providing a level of flexibility that aligns with their healthcare preferences.

PPO vs HSA rules and regulations

Both HSAs and PPOs are subject to a number of rules and regulations related to eligibility, contribution limits, tax deductions, and more. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules before signing up for an HSA or a PPO.

HSA rules and regulations

The IRS sets annual contribution limits for HSAs. These limits apply to the total contributions made to the HSA, combining contributions from both the individual and, if applicable, their employer. Contribution limits can change annually, and individuals age 55 or older may be eligible for catch-up contributions.

For 2024, the annual HSA contribution limit for an individual with self-only coverage is $4,150, and for those with family coverage, it is $8,300. The catch-up contribution limit for individuals aged 55 or older is an additional $1,000.

To contribute to an HSA, individuals must be covered by a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). The HDHP must meet specific IRS criteria for the annual deductible and out-of-pocket maximum. Individuals cannot be covered by other health insurance that is not an HDHP, including Medicare, and cannot be claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return.

PPO rules and regulations

The rules and procedures for enrolling in a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) health insurance plan can vary depending on the specific insurance provider and employer policies. However, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind.

Many PPO plans are offered through employers as part of their employee benefits package. If you are eligible for employer-sponsored health insurance, your employer will provide information about the available plans, enrollment periods, and any employer contributions.

Unlike HSAs which have specific contribution limits set by the IRS, PPOs generally do not have contribution limits in the same sense. PPOs operate differently from accounts like HSAs or retirement plans, and their structure focuses more on the cost-sharing arrangement between the individual and the insurance provider.

How to choose between HSA and PPO?

Choosing between a HSA and a PPO involves considering your specific healthcare needs, financial preferences, and individual circumstances.

Here are key factors to help you make an informed decision:

Healthcare utilization

Evaluate your typical healthcare utilization. If you rarely visit doctors and have minimal medical expenses, an HSA paired with a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) might be advantageous. If you have frequent medical needs, a PPO with lower out-of-pocket costs for regular visits may be more suitable.

Chronic conditions or planned procedures

If you have chronic health conditions or anticipate planned medical procedures, assess how each plan covers these needs. PPOs often have lower deductibles and copayments for routine care, while HSAs provide a tax-advantaged way to save for future medical expenses.

Budget and premiums

Examine your budget and financial situation. PPOs typically have higher premiums but lower out-of-pocket costs for routine services. HSAs may have lower premiums but higher out-of-pocket costs until the deductible is met. Consider how these costs align with your budget.

Tax implications

Evaluate the tax advantages of each option. HSAs offer triple tax benefits (deductible contributions, tax-free growth, and tax-free withdrawals for medical expenses). PPOs do not provide the same tax advantages, but they offer more predictable costs and lower upfront expenses.

Savings and investments

If long-term savings and potential investment growth are priorities, an HSA provides a unique opportunity. Contributions to an HSA can be invested, allowing for potential growth over time. This can be advantageous for building a healthcare nest egg.

Employer contributions

If your employer offers contributions to either the HSA or PPO, consider how this impacts your decision. Some employers contribute to HSAs, helping offset medical costs. Others may subsidize PPO premiums or offer other incentives.

HSA vs PPO comparison table

If you’re still on the fence regarding which plan is better for you, check out this table for a side-by-side comparison of HSAs vs PPOs.

As a final point to consider, PPOs are often compared to Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) when considering cost-effective healthcare. HMOs offer lower premiums and predictable out-of-pocket costs, making them suitable for employees seeking budget-friendly options.

 However, HMOs come with a more restricted provider network, requiring members to primarily use in-network services and obtain referrals for specialist care. Despite limited flexibility, HMOs prioritize preventive care and may be an appealing choice for those prioritizing affordability and routine health maintenance.

Can you have an HSA with a PPO plan?

Yes, employees can have a HSA in conjunction with a PPO, but there are certain eligibility criteria to consider:

  • HDHP requirement – To contribute to an HSA, you must be covered by a HDHP. PPO plans can qualify as HDHPs if they meet the specific deductible and out-of-pocket maximum requirements set by the IRS.
  • Not covered by other insurance – If you have a PPO plan as your primary health insurance, you generally should not have additional health coverage that is not an HDHP. This includes not being enrolled in Medicare and not being claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return.
  • HSA contribution limits – The total contributions to your HSA, including both your contributions and any contributions from your employer, must not exceed the annual limits set by the IRS ($4,150 for individuals, $8,300 for families).

If you meet these criteria, you can enjoy the benefits of both a PPO plan, which provides flexibility in choosing healthcare providers, and an HSA, which offers tax advantages and the ability to save for medical expenses.

Should I choose a PPO or HSA?

HSAs and PPOs cater to different needs, so the choice between the two depends on your particular use-case.

If you seek tax advantages, long-term savings potential, and the ability to contribute to a dedicated healthcare fund, an HSA will align better with your objectives.

If you prioritize flexibility in choosing healthcare providers, predictable out-of-pocket costs for routine care, and potentially lower upfront expenses, a PPO may be suitable.

As a final point, the choice between PPO and HSA often hinges on your employer and their benefits options. Employers that are dedicated to providing flexible benefits may offer HSAs, PPOs, or both. They can also offer FSAs, LSAs, HRAs, and other kinds of health insurance arrangements.

If your employer is open to the idea of flexible benefits, but is concerned about potential difficulties with cost and implementation, speak to them about Forma, the flexible benefits platform.

<span class="text-style-link text-color-blue" fs-mirrorclick-element="trigger" role="button">Schedule a consultation</span> with one of our experts to explore innovative and tailored benefits solutions that align with your team's aspirations and your company's objectives.

*This document is for informational purposes. Forma is not engaged in the practice of law. Nothing contained herein is intended as tax or legal advice nor is it intended to replace tax or legal advice from counsel. If you need tax or legal advice, please consult with counsel or a certified tax professional.

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