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Fully Insured vs. Self Funded Health Plans: A Comprehensive Guide

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Fully Insured vs. Self Funded Health Plans: A Comprehensive Guide

Navigating Health Plan Options: Fully Insured vs. Self Funded

When it comes to providing healthcare benefits, employers have two main options: fully insured vs self funded health plan. Understanding the key differences can help you make an informed decision that best suits your business needs.

Quick Summary:
Fully Insured Plan: Fixed premium paid to an insurance carrier. Predictable costs but less flexibility.
Self Funded Plan: Employer assumes the financial risk. More flexibility but higher administrative burden.

Rising medical costs have prompted many employers to seek alternative strategies to manage expenses without sacrificing coverage quality. At NPA Benefits, we help businesses navigate these complexities to find the most suitable health insurance solutions.

Hello, I’m Les Perlson. With over 40 years of experience in the health insurance marketplace, I specialize in demystifying complex insurance topics. Here, I’ll break down the essentials of fully insured and self funded health plans, helping you make the right choice for your business.

Difference Between Fully-Insured and Self-Insured Health Plans - fully insured vs self funded health plan infographic comparison-2-items-casual

In the following sections, we’ll dive deeper into the pros and cons of each type, providing a comprehensive guide to help you choose the best option for your business.

What is a Fully Insured Health Plan?

A fully insured health plan is the traditional route for providing employee health benefits. In this model, employers pay a fixed premium to an insurance carrier, who then assumes the financial risk and administrative duties associated with covering employees’ medical claims.

Pros of Fully Insured Health Plans

Less Financial Risk:
In a fully insured plan, the insurance company takes on all the financial risk. This means that if your employees have high medical claims, the insurer absorbs those costs, not you. This can be a huge relief for businesses worried about unpredictable healthcare expenses.

Financial Predictability:
Employers pay a fixed premium, which makes budgeting straightforward. This fixed cost is determined annually and only changes if the number of enrolled employees changes. This predictability helps businesses plan their finances without worrying about unexpected medical claims.

Fewer Administrative Burdens:
The insurance carrier handles all administrative tasks, such as claims processing and compliance with state regulations. This allows employers to focus on their core business operations without getting bogged down by the complexities of managing a health plan.

Cons of Fully Insured Health Plans

Higher Costs:
Fully insured plans can be more expensive due to fixed premiums, which often increase annually. Over the last five years, premiums have risen by 20%, and they’re expected to surge by another 6.5% in 2024. This can strain the budgets of small to mid-sized businesses.

Limited Customization:
Employers have little flexibility to tailor the plan to their specific needs. They must choose from pre-designed plans offered by the insurer, which may not perfectly fit their workforce. For example, if your employees need more mental health services, a fully insured plan might not offer the necessary coverage.

No Cost Savings:
Any leftover money not spent on medical claims during the year stays with the insurance company. Unlike self-funded plans, employers don’t get a refund for any unspent funds.

State Laws and Taxes:
Fully insured plans are subject to state insurance regulations and taxes, adding another layer of cost. Self-insured plans, in contrast, are regulated at the federal level under ERISA, avoiding these state taxes.

Next, we’ll explore the ins and outs of self-funded health plans, including their benefits and potential drawbacks.

What is a Self Funded Health Plan?

A self-funded health plan, also known as a self-insured plan, is a type of health insurance where the employer assumes the financial risk of providing healthcare benefits to employees. Instead of paying fixed premiums to an insurance carrier, the employer pays for actual healthcare claims as they arise. This approach provides more flexibility and potential cost savings but also comes with certain risks and administrative responsibilities.

Pros of Self Funded Health Plans

One of the biggest advantages of self-funding is the ability to tailor the health plan to meet the specific needs of your employees. Unlike fully insured plans, which are often rigid, self-funded plans allow you to include services like mental health counseling or disease management programs. This flexibility can lead to a better employee benefits experience.

Cost Savings:
Employers can save money if their employees are relatively healthy and don’t use the health plan extensively. At the end of the year, any leftover funds not spent on medical claims are generally returned to the employer. This contrasts with fully insured plans where any unspent money stays with the insurance company.

Lower Taxes:
Self-funded plans are not subject to state insurance premium taxes, which can be a significant saving. Additionally, they avoid some of the administrative and underwriting costs associated with traditional insurance.

Compliance with ERISA:
Self-funded plans are regulated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which preempts state insurance laws. This means fewer state mandates, giving employers more freedom in plan design and benefits.

Cons of Self Funded Health Plans

Financial Risk:
The employer assumes all responsibility for providing health insurance and paying healthcare costs out of pocket. This can be risky, especially if an employee has a catastrophic health event. However, many employers mitigate this risk by purchasing stop-loss insurance, which reimburses expenses that exceed a set amount.

Administrative Burden:
Managing a self-funded plan requires more resources and expertise. Employers are responsible for tasks like claims processing, compliance, and plan design. This can be overwhelming and may distract from core business operations. To alleviate this burden, employers often hire a third-party administrator (TPA).

Need for Stop-Loss Insurance:
To manage the financial risk of high-cost claims, many employers purchase stop-loss insurance. This coverage kicks in when claims exceed a certain threshold, providing a safety net. However, stop-loss insurance comes at an additional cost, which can offset some of the savings from self-funding.

Healthcare Administration - fully insured vs self funded health plan

Compliance Requirements:
While self-funded plans are exempt from state insurance laws, they must still comply with federal regulations under ERISA. This includes providing plan documents and protecting participants’ health information under HIPAA. Compliance can be complex and time-consuming.

In summary, self-funded health plans offer significant control and potential cost savings but come with higher financial risks and administrative responsibilities. Next, we’ll explore Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) as a way to mitigate some of these risks while still enjoying the benefits of a self-funded model.

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs)

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) are a type of self-insured plan that can help employers manage healthcare costs without taking on too much financial risk or administrative burden. HRAs allow employers to reimburse employees for qualifying medical expenses, offering a balance between flexibility and predictability.

Types of HRAs

There are several types of HRAs that employers can consider, each with its own set of rules and benefits. Let’s break them down:

Qualified Small Employer HRA (QSEHRA)

QSEHRAs are designed for small businesses with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees. They allow employers to reimburse employees for medical expenses and individual health insurance premiums. The reimbursements are tax-free, provided the employee has a minimum essential coverage (MEC) insurance policy.

Example: A small business owner sets aside a fixed monthly amount for each employee. Employees submit receipts for eligible medical expenses, and the employer reimburses them up to the set limit. This way, the business can provide a meaningful health benefit without breaking the bank.

Individual Coverage HRA (ICHRA)

ICHRAs offer more flexibility and are available to employers of any size. Employers can set different allowance amounts for different classes of employees. Like QSEHRAs, ICHRAs offer tax-free reimbursements for eligible medical expenses and health insurance premiums.

Example: An employer decides to offer higher allowances to full-time employees and lower allowances to part-time employees. Employees then use these allowances to purchase individual health insurance plans that suit their needs.

Integrated HRA (Group Coverage HRA)

Integrated HRAs, also known as Group Coverage HRAs (GCHRAs), supplement an existing group health plan. They help cover out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and copayments. Only employees enrolled in the employer’s group health plan can participate.

Example: A company offers a high-deductible health plan but uses an integrated HRA to help employees cover their deductibles and copayments. This setup can make the overall health plan more affordable for employees.

Financial Risk Mitigation

HRAs allow employers to set a fixed monthly budget for healthcare reimbursements, reducing financial risk. Unlike traditional self-funded plans, where costs can vary widely, HRAs provide a predictable expense model.

Example: An employer sets a monthly reimbursement limit. No matter how high the employees’ medical expenses go, the employer will not spend more than the pre-set limit, making budgeting easier.

Administrative Ease

HRAs can significantly reduce the administrative burden compared to traditional self-funded plans. Employers don’t need to handle medical claims directly. Instead, employees submit proof of expenses, and employers process reimbursements according to a pre-set schedule.

Example: An employee submits a receipt for a doctor’s visit. The employer verifies the expense and reimburses the employee, simplifying the process for both parties.

HRAs offer a flexible, cost-effective way for employers to provide health benefits. They combine the control of a self-funded plan with the financial predictability of a fully insured plan, making them an attractive option for many businesses.

Next, we’ll dive into the key differences between fully insured and self-funded health plans to help you decide which option might be best for your organization.

Fully Insured vs. Self Funded Health Plan: Key Differences

When deciding between a fully insured and a self-funded health plan, understand the key differences in financial predictability, customization, cost savings, and administrative responsibilities. Let’s break these down.

Financial Predictability

Fully Insured Plans:
Fixed Premiums: Employers pay a set premium to an insurance carrier. This offers predictability, making it easier to budget for healthcare costs.
Less Financial Risk: The insurance company assumes the risk of paying claims, reducing unexpected expenses for the employer.

Self Funded Plans:
Variable Costs: Employers pay for employee healthcare claims as they occur. Costs can fluctuate month-to-month, making budgeting more complex.
Stop-Loss Insurance: Many employers purchase stop-loss insurance to cap their financial exposure, adding a layer of predictability.


Fully Insured Plans:
Rigid Plans: These plans come with pre-designed options from the insurance carrier. Employers have limited ability to customize benefits.
State Mandates: Fully insured plans must comply with state insurance mandates, which can limit flexibility.

Self Funded Plans:
Flexible Plans: Employers can design their own health plan tailored to their workforce’s needs. This can include specific benefits like mental health counseling or disease management programs.
ERISA Compliance: Self-funded plans are exempt from state mandates but must comply with federal laws like ERISA.

Cost Savings

Fully Insured Plans:
Premium Taxes: Employers pay taxes on premiums, which can increase overall costs.
Insurance Company Profits: Any surplus from premiums goes to the insurance company, not the employer.

Self Funded Plans:
Lower Taxes: Employers avoid premium taxes and other costs associated with traditional insurance.
Potential Savings: If healthcare claims are lower than expected, the employer retains the savings. This can be significant over time.

Administrative Responsibilities

Fully Insured Plans:
Insurance Carrier: The insurance company handles most administrative tasks, including claims processing and regulatory compliance.
Less Burden: This reduces the administrative load on the employer, allowing them to focus on core business activities.

Self Funded Plans:
Third-Party Administrator (TPA): Employers often hire a TPA to manage claims processing, compliance, and other administrative duties.
More Burden: While TPAs can handle many tasks, the employer still has more responsibility compared to a fully insured plan.

Understanding these differences can help you make an informed decision about which type of plan is best for your organization. Next, we’ll address some frequently asked questions to further clarify the distinctions between fully insured and self-funded health plans.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fully Insured vs. Self Funded Health Plans

What is the difference between self-funded and fully insured?

Self-funded plans are employer-funded. This means the employer collects premiums from employees and pays for their medical claims out of pocket. Employers often hire a Third-Party Administrator (TPA) to handle tasks like claims processing and compliance.

Fully insured plans are managed by an insurance carrier. Employers pay a fixed premium to the insurer, which then covers all medical claims. This approach offers more financial predictability but less flexibility.

What are the cons of a self-funded health insurance plan?

  • Financial Risk: Employers bear the risk of high medical claims. If an employee has a costly medical condition, the employer pays. However, stop-loss insurance can mitigate some of this risk.
  • Administrative Burden: Managing a self-funded plan involves more work. Employers must handle compliance and claims processing, often with the help of a TPA.
  • Compliance Requirements: Self-funded plans must comply with ERISA and other federal regulations, which can be complex.

What does “fully funded” mean in health insurance?

“Fully funded” (or fully insured) means the employer pays a fixed premium to an insurance carrier. The insurer assumes all financial risk and handles all administrative tasks. This setup provides financial predictability but less customization and higher costs.

Understanding these key differences can help you choose the right health plan for your organization. Next, we’ll dive deeper into the pros and cons of each option.


Choosing the right health plan for your business is a crucial decision. Both fully insured and self funded health plans have their own sets of advantages and challenges.

Fully insured health plans offer financial predictability and simplicity. Employers pay fixed premiums, and the insurance company handles the claims and administrative tasks. This reduces financial risk and administrative burden, making it an attractive option for many businesses. However, it can be more expensive and less flexible compared to self-insured plans.

On the other hand, self funded health plans provide greater flexibility and potential cost savings, especially if your workforce is healthy. But they come with increased financial risk and administrative responsibilities.

At NPA Benefits, we understand that navigating health insurance can be complex. We’re here to help you weigh the pros and cons of each option and find the best fit for your business. Our expertise ensures that you make informed decisions that benefit both your company and your employees.

For more information on how self-funded health insurance plans can benefit your business, visit our self-funded health insurance page. Let us help you find the solution that supports your team’s health and your company’s success, today and into the future.

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