SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Technology Credit Union is proof that slow and steady makes all the difference in the health savings account race.
"Initially we saw this as a source of new members and a deposit acquisition strategy," said Tech CU Vice President of Marketing Kathleen Litman. "The more we looked into it the more realized that it fit our philosophy because it was such a 'value add' for our members especially those who were self-employed or worked for small companies and this was a new type of account that had some buzz in the media it all came together."
HSAs are tax-free portable savings accounts that can be used to pay for medical expenses including prescription and over-the-counter drugs incurred by individuals, spouses or dependents. These accounts are accompanied by high-deductible, comprehensive insurance policies that cover preventive care and larger medical bills. Unused HSA money rolls over from year-to-year and can then be used to pay for medical care up to the plan's deductible.
Tech CU Assistant Vice President of Business Services Sarah Samuel said the credit union's foray into the HSA playing field was made easier with help from Patelco Credit Union, which had great success with its HSA program in early 2006.
"HSAs are so new that it is still hard to get your arms around it, but our research showed that there were small businesses out there that were going to a bank to open an account but would prefer to go to their local credit union," said Samuel. "It doesn't help that a lot of businesses don't think of credit unions when they think of HSAs. So with another credit union offering it and our launch in July of a whole suite of services for small businesses we thought offering HSA accounts would be a great 'value add' as we talk to the small business owner."
Litman said a lot of research went into making the decision to offer an HSA program and having another credit union to talk to and use as a benchmark was a great help. Before any HSA rollout it's important to have all your ducks in a row, added Samuel.
"The best advice is to take it slow and do your homework. Ask as many questions as you can from system requirements, compatible systems to looking at reporting requirements," said Samuel. "Does your credit union have its own internal compliance department? Will they be overseeing the program? If not then finding a partner is also on the to-do list. Think about your internal process and what policy procedures will be needed and employee training. Also be sure to think about what you'll offer in conjunction with the HSAs and which channels they'll have to access their accounts. A guiding philosophy for us was setting up parameters of the account to preclude members from getting into trouble and using the wrong debit card which would then have tax repercussions for them, knowing it takes members a few times to get used to the accounts and build understanding from a tax standpoint."
The search for an HSA partner was easy since BISYS provided compliance for Tech CU's IRAs, and the firm not only had the expertise needed but also offered turnkey HSA collateral including a Web site (www.bisysretirement.com) and brochures that could be customized. In addition, BISYS provided emergent training to all front-line Tech CU staff and more extensive training to ensure each branch had HSA subject matter experts. The result: Tech CU launched its HSA program in November 2006 with an eye on offering a competitive high interest rate; no maintenance, transfer, rollover or termination fees; debit card access; free checks; online banking access; and account management. Litman said that early on Tech CU recognized the need for a plan and methodology to get training out to employees prior to rolling out to members.
"Nothing is worse than a marketing message with a new, sexy account and having the front line staff just looking blank when members come in asking questions," said Litman, "which is why we made training and education such a priority before any rollout. Our marketing approach has been gradual but we have been learning along the way and want this to grow slowly over time."
Even without a vigorous, formal push across all channels, after a little over a year, Tech CU now has 527 HSA accounts with over $700,000 in deposits. Samuel is hopeful the credit union will hit a $1 million milestone by the two-year mark.
With the ongoing education efforts in place, Tech CU began also tailoring its message to speak to small business owners via print advertising in a local business journal, Web promotion and e-mail campaign, direct mail and all typical member education channels. In addition, when Tech CU launched its blog last year, there were three blog entries dedicated to HSAs and how they can help the average consumer with their healthcare, which strategically ran before open enrollment, during summer and as members geared up for the tax season. The credit union also held an educational HSA podcast for small business owners. According to Litman, building awareness, creating a constant dialogue about services and providing members access to
HSA education resources is vital and is an ever-evolving process.
"We don't claim to have all the answers and we are still learning but taking it slow and rolling our program out in phases has been working well for us," said Samuel. "There is just so much room for growth particularly as area businesses become more aware and seek education on it. HSAs are one of the last frontiers on deposit growth and credit unions have an opportunity to mine a fairly undiscovered market."
She said despite the open playing field, fear and a general lack of understanding HSAs are helping to keep credit unions riding the fence.
"Typically we as an industry are cautious so we wait until everyone is doing it and jump in after and it is better late than never," said Litman. "With HSAs the need is going to be there as businesses become more informed so why not do the research now? Learn about what is involved, if it's right for your members, and figure out your niche in the marketplace. For example, maybe your credit union can't compete with a high interest rate but your value add could be building an HSA product with minimal or no fees as a way to offer a service that not only benefits members but your credit union by not charging an arm and a leg for it."
She added that it is something that takes time and from a marketing standpoint it is like having a gold mine.
"We just have to figure out how to mine that gold," said Litman. "With HSAs, it is important to know it isn't an instant win; it takes time. Maybe if enough large credit unions start offering it, then from a credit union standpoint as a group we can come together discuss our challenges and what went right and become that safety net so others can realize it is do-able."