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Self Insured Health Plans: What Are They and How Do They Work?

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Self Insured Health Plans: What Are They and How Do They Work?

What is a self insured health plan? A self insured health plan is a type of employee health insurance where the employer assumes the financial risk of providing health benefits, paying for actual healthcare claims out of pocket rather than fixed premiums to an insurance carrier.

Quick Overview:
Definition: An arrangement where the employer pays directly for employee health claims.
Importance: Offers flexibility and potential cost savings but involves financial risk and administrative responsibilities.

As healthcare costs continue to rise, many employers are looking for ways to offer quality health benefits without breaking the bank. This is where self insured health plans come into play. These plans allow employers to pay for actual healthcare costs rather than fixed insurance premiums. This approach offers flexibility in designing benefits tailored to employee needs and can lead to significant savings.

But it’s not without its challenges. Along with the potential benefits, self insured health plans come with financial risks and administrative burdens that must be carefully managed. Despite these challenges, many businesses find the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, especially if they have a healthy workforce and strong financial resources.

I’m Les Perlson. With over 40 years of experience in the health insurance industry, I have extensive knowledge about what is a self insured health plan and its implications for businesses. Let’s explore this topic further to help you make informed decisions for your company.

Self Insured Health Plans Overview Infographic: Definition, Importance, Quick Benefits and Risks - what is a self insured health plan infographic infographic-line-3-steps

What is a Self Insured Health Plan?

A self insured health plan is a type of health insurance where the employer takes on the financial risk for providing health care benefits to its employees. Instead of paying a fixed premium to an insurance carrier, the employer pays for actual healthcare claims out of pocket. This setup offers significant flexibility and potential cost savings but also comes with notable risks and responsibilities.

How Does a Self Insured Health Plan Work?

Employer Funds

In a self insured plan, employers typically set aside funds to cover anticipated healthcare claims. This “pool” of money often includes contributions from both the employer and the employees.

Claims Payment

When an employee incurs a healthcare expense, the claim is paid directly from this pool of funds. This means the employer is responsible for each claim as it arises, rather than paying a fixed premium.

Third-Party Administrators (TPAs)

Many employers partner with TPAs to handle the administrative aspects of the plan. TPAs process claims, manage provider networks, and offer utilization review services. This helps employers focus on their core business while ensuring that claims are handled efficiently.

Example: Imagine your company, XYZ Corp, decides to self-insure. You partner with a TPA like Blue Cross, which handles claims processing and provides a network of providers. Your employees might not even realize the plan is self-insured because their ID cards say Blue Cross.

Stop-Loss Insurance

To mitigate the risk of high claims, employers often purchase stop-loss insurance. This type of insurance reimburses the employer for claims that exceed a specified amount. There are two types of stop-loss insurance:
Specific Stop-Loss: Covers individual claims that exceed a certain threshold.
Aggregate Stop-Loss: Covers total claims that exceed a predetermined limit for the entire group.

Example: If your stop-loss policy has a specific attachment point of $20,000 and one of your employees gets very sick, you would pay the employee’s claim. Your stop-loss insurance company would then repay you for any amount you paid beyond the $20,000, but they don’t repay you for the first $20,000 of that employee’s covered claims. This limit would apply to each person each year.

Key Takeaways:
Financial Responsibility: Employers must have the financial resources to cover claims, which can be unpredictable.
Flexibility: Employers can customize their health plans to better meet the needs of their employees.
Risk Management: Stop-loss insurance helps manage the financial risk associated with high claims.

Understanding what is a self insured health plan and how it works can help you decide if this option is right for your business. Now, let’s delve into the benefits of self insured health plans to see how they can offer advantages to your organization.

Benefits of Self Insured Health Plans

Cost Savings

One of the primary benefits of self insured health plans is cost savings. Unlike traditional insurance where you pay a fixed premium regardless of claims, self-insured plans allow employers to pay only for actual healthcare costs.

Example: According to the research, some employers have saved significantly by switching to self-insured plans. For instance, businesses can avoid state taxes on insurance premiums and some Affordable Care Act (ACA) fees, reducing overall costs.

Plan Customization

Self-insured plans offer flexibility in designing health benefits that meet the unique needs of your employees. This means you can tailor the plan to include or exclude specific services, making it more attractive and relevant to your workforce.

Tailored Coverage: You can choose to cover services that are most needed by your employees.
Employee Satisfaction: Custom plans can lead to higher employee satisfaction and retention.

Cash Flow Improvement

Self-insured plans can also improve your company’s cash flow. Instead of paying large premiums upfront, you pay for claims as they arise. This pay-as-you-go model helps manage cash flow more effectively.

Reserve Funds: You can set aside reserve funds for future claims, providing a buffer for unexpected expenses.
Financial Control: Greater control over healthcare spending can lead to more strategic financial planning.

Control Over Funds

When you self-insure, you have greater control over your funds. You can see exactly where your healthcare dollars are going, which allows for better financial management and cost transparency.

Key Points:
Access to Claims Data: Employers can track healthcare spending in real-time.
Cost Drivers Identification: Understanding what drives healthcare costs enables targeted interventions and more informed decisions about plan design and wellness initiatives.

By leveraging these benefits, self insured health plans can offer significant advantages for your business. The next section will explore the drawbacks and challenges to help you make a well-rounded decision.

Drawbacks of Self Insured Health Plans

While self insured health plans offer many benefits, they also come with some significant challenges. Let’s explore these drawbacks in more detail.

Financial Risk

When you choose a self insured plan, you take on the financial risk of your employees’ health claims. This means if your employees have high medical costs, your business must cover those expenses. For example, if an employee needs an expensive surgery, the cost can be substantial. This risk is especially high for small businesses that might not have the financial cushion to absorb unexpected large claims.

Administrative Burden

Managing a self insured health plan involves significant administrative tasks. These include designing plan benefits, enrolling employees, issuing plan documents, and coordinating with healthcare providers. Most small employers do not have the expertise or resources to handle these tasks on their own. As a result, they often hire third-party administrators (TPAs) to manage these responsibilities, which can add complexity and cost.

Compliance Requirements

Self insured health plans must comply with various federal laws, including the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Ensuring compliance with these regulations can be challenging and time-consuming. Failure to comply can result in significant penalties.

Cash Flow Variability

Unlike fully insured plans where you pay a fixed premium each month, self insured plans can lead to cash flow variability. This means the amount you pay can fluctuate significantly from month to month based on the claims submitted. For instance, you might pay very little in claims one month, but the next month, you could face multiple high-cost claims. This unpredictability can strain your business’s cash reserves.

Key Points:
Financial Risk: High medical costs can impact your business directly.
Administrative Burden: Managing the plan requires significant resources and expertise.
Compliance Requirements: Adhering to federal regulations is essential but challenging.
Cash Flow Variability: Monthly costs can be unpredictable and strain finances.

Understanding these drawbacks can help you weigh the pros and cons of self insured health plans. Up next, we’ll discuss key considerations for employers to help you decide if a self insured plan is right for your business.

Key Considerations for Employers

Choosing a self insured health plan means taking on more responsibility and risk. Here are some key considerations to help you decide if it’s the right move for your business.

Financial Resources

Self-funding requires a solid cash flow. You need enough funds to cover routine and unexpected medical claims. Conduct a cash flow analysis to ensure your business can handle these costs. If cash flow is tight, self-funding might not be the best option.

Employee Health

Understanding the health of your workforce is crucial. Analyze historical claims data to estimate future costs. If you have many employees with chronic conditions or a history of high medical expenses, self-funding could be risky.

Administrative Capabilities

Managing a self-funded plan involves significant administrative tasks:

  • Designing plan benefits
  • Enrolling employees
  • Issuing plan documents and ID cards
  • Approving and paying claims
  • Coordinating with healthcare providers
  • Ensuring legal compliance

Most small employers lack the expertise to handle these tasks. Hiring a Third-Party Administrator (TPA) can help.

Legal Compliance

Self-funded plans must comply with several federal laws, including:

  • ERISA: Requires providing plan documents and summary descriptions.
  • HIPAA: Protects participants’ health information.
  • ACA: Mandates coverage for essential health benefits.

Non-compliance can lead to penalties, so understand these regulations.

Stop-Loss Insurance

Stop-loss insurance helps protect against high medical costs. It includes two key limits:

  • Specific Attachment Point: Limits how much you pay for each person’s claims. For example, if this point is $20,000, the insurance covers costs beyond this amount for each individual.
  • Aggregate Attachment Point: Limits how much you pay for total claims. For instance, if this point is $1 million, the insurance covers costs beyond this amount for all claims combined.

Third-Party Administrators (TPAs)

TPAs handle many administrative tasks, making it easier to manage a self-funded plan. They process claims, negotiate with providers, and ensure compliance. When choosing a TPA, consider:

  • Service Quality: Use a well-informed insurance agent to find a trustworthy TPA.
  • Contract Understanding: Ensure the contract covers all operational responsibilities.
  • Monitoring: Periodically check the TPA’s performance and get feedback from employees.

By considering these aspects, you can decide if a self insured health plan is suitable for your business. Next, we’ll explore the benefits of self insured health plans.

Frequently Asked Questions about Self Insured Health Plans

What are the pros and cons of a self-insured health plan?


  • Cost Savings: Employers only pay for actual claims. If claims are lower than expected, the savings can be substantial. This allows businesses to reinvest or enhance employee benefits.

  • Plan Customization: Self-insured plans offer the flexibility to design a health plan that fits the unique needs of your workforce. This can lead to higher employee satisfaction and better health outcomes.

  • Tax Benefits: Employers can set up a health trust where investment earnings, often tax-free, fund plan expenses. Additionally, most self-funded programs are exempt from state premium taxes, which typically range from 2% to 6% of premiums in fully insured programs.

  • Regulatory Flexibility: Self-insured plans are not bound by some federal requirements that apply to fully insured plans. For example, they are not subject to the ACA’s essential health benefits mandate (except for preventive care). This can provide more freedom in plan design.


  • Financial Risk: Employers assume the risk of paying out claims. If a year has unexpectedly high claims, it can significantly impact finances. This is a major consideration, especially for smaller companies with less financial cushion.

  • Cash Flow Requirements: Managing a self-insured plan requires sufficient cash flow to cover claims as they arise. This can be unpredictable and may strain the company’s finances if not managed properly.

  • Administrative Burden: Handling a self-insured plan involves more administrative work. Employers need to deal with claims processing, compliance, and other day-to-day management tasks. While third-party administrators (TPAs) can help, the employer still needs to be involved in decision-making.

  • Stop-Loss Insurance Necessity: To mitigate financial risk, many employers purchase stop-loss insurance. This adds a layer of financial protection but also increases costs, cutting into potential savings.

Why would a company choose to be self-insured?

Cost Reduction:

Self-insured plans can be more cost-effective, especially for larger companies with healthy workforces. Employers avoid paying premiums to insurance companies, which often include profit margins and administrative costs.

Plan Flexibility:

Employers can design their own plans, tailoring benefits to their employees’ specific needs. This customization can include wellness programs, mental health services, and other initiatives that may not be available in fully insured plans.

Control Over Benefits:

Employers have direct access to claims data and can make informed decisions about plan adjustments. This level of control allows for more effective management of healthcare costs and employee health outcomes.

How does a self-insured plan differ from a fully-insured plan?

Fully Insured Health Plan:

  • Traditional Model: Employers pay a fixed premium to an insurance company, which then takes on the financial risk of covering employee medical claims.

  • Predictability: Costs are predictable because premiums are fixed, making budgeting easier.

  • Limited Control: The insurance company sets the terms, including coverage options and benefit levels. Employers have limited flexibility to customize the plan.

  • Administrative Ease: The insurance company handles claims processing and regulatory compliance, reducing the administrative burden on the employer.

Self-Insured Health Plan:

  • Employer-Funded: Employers set aside funds to cover employee medical claims, assuming the financial risk themselves.

  • Cost Savings: If actual claims are lower than expected, employers can save money. Additionally, they can avoid state premium taxes and broker commissions.

  • Flexibility: Employers have more control over plan design, allowing them to tailor benefits to their workforce’s specific needs.

  • Administrative Responsibilities: Employers often work with TPAs for claims processing and compliance but still bear more administrative duties than fully insured plans.


In summary, a self-insured health plan offers employers the opportunity to take control of their healthcare expenses and customize their benefits to meet the unique needs of their workforce. By funding employee medical claims directly, employers can potentially save money and gain flexibility in plan design. However, it’s important to consider the increased financial risk and administrative responsibilities that come with this approach.

At NPA Benefits, we understand that navigating the complexities of self-insured health plans can be challenging. Our team is here to help you assess whether this option is the right fit for your business. We provide expert guidance on everything from evaluating your claims history to choosing a reliable third-party administrator (TPA) and securing the right stop-loss insurance to protect against high claims.

By partnering with us, you can confidently explore the benefits of self-insured health plans and make informed decisions that align with your company’s goals and employee needs. Our commitment to quality service ensures that you’re supported every step of the way, from plan design to ongoing management.

For more information on how self-insured health plans can benefit your business, visit our service page on the difference between fully insured and self-insured plans. Let us help you find the right solution to support your team’s health and your company’s success, today and into the future.

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We hope this guide has provided you with a clear understanding of what self-insured health plans are and how they work. If you have any further questions or need personalized advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Together, we can create a health benefits strategy that works for you and your employees.

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