MILWAUKEE - Every time Kathleen Hirscher receives a bill for her health insurance, the premium is higher.
In response to this common problem, the 61-year- old retired nurse has been slowly raising her deductibles and copays.
She and her husband Robert, 71, a retired corporate controller, find appeal in the financial trade-off of a lower premium for a higher deductible.
Recently, that trade became even more appealing when the Milwaukee couple discovered Health Savings Accounts.
HSAs became available Jan. 1 to many people with high-deductible health insurance policies. For federal tax purposes, money put into an HSA can be deducted from income taxes, accumulates earnings on a tax-deferred basis and is tax free on withdrawal if used to pay medical bills.
At 71, Robert is eligible for Medicare and thus too old for an HSA. But Kathleen’s deductibles had climbed to the level where she might qualify.
But not without some effort. HSAs are becoming increasingly popular, but the market is in its infancy.
To get the best deal, a consumer has to shop very carefully.
Furthermore, not every health insurance policy with the threshold $1,000 deductible qualifies, because it also must meet other technical requirements of the law.
In addition, Robert, who handles the family’s finances, had a difficult time finding anyone who sold the accounts to individuals.
‘‘When I looked into getting an HSA, I got blank stares from everybody,’’ Robert said. Eventually, he found the State Bank of Howards Grove, a Sheboygan County institution that has been at the forefront of the individual HSA market. ‘‘They said they will need proof that we have a highdeductible plan,’’ he said recently, before filling out forms the bank provided.
Almost every day, the Wisconsin institution is getting a new competitor in the market for individual HSAs, according to Dan Perrin, executive director of the HSA Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a big booster of the concept.
A Web site maintained by his organization, www.hsainsider.com, is constantly expanding its list of insurance companies offering qualified high-deductible plans as well as banks and other companies selling HSAs to individuals.
Even so, there is no good data on how many people have started the accounts or the amount of money invested in them, he said.
One reason is that HSAs were designed to appeal more to employers than individuals.
A firm can offer its workers a high-deductible health insurance plan in conjunction with an HSA and often save money in the process.
‘‘The purpose of an HSA is to shift more cost to the consumer and from the employer,’’ said Andy Serio, president of Healthcare Systems Consultants in Wauwatosa. No good list is yet available on the number of companies that have begun such plans, he and Perrin said.
The only reliable information will become available after federal tax returns for this year can be analyzed.
However, Perrin said that the number of hits to his Web site has been increasing, from none in April to more than 1 million last month.
Many come from people trying to find order in the developing market for HSAs. Offerings vary widely in price and benefits within the constraints of the law.
‘‘We have said to our clients, ‘This is going to be great for you, but don’t jump in on the first round,’’’ said Paula Hogan, a financial planner in Glendale.
One relatively unexplored area is using HSAs primarily as a savings vehicle — they are the only account that allows money to be withdrawn federal tax free and be deducted when it is contributed.
Wisconsin has declined to enact a similar provision in state law, meaning that residents of America’s Dairyland get no tax deduction on their state return for HSA contributions and will have to pay taxes on earnings in the account as they accrue.
That is what Robert Hirscher plans to do. He and his wife are well enough off that they can pay the deductibles without tapping her HSA, so he will let the money accumulate.
Hogan expects that as the HSA market matures, more people will use HSAs in the way Hirscher plans.
‘‘It will become an extra planning tool,’’ she said, adding, ‘‘If that gets a lot of publicity, the opportunities will go away fast.’’