Health Spending Account vs Wellness Spending Account [Explained]

By: Updated: November 5, 2019


What is the difference between a Health Spending Account (HSA) and a Wellness Spending Account (WSA)?

Many companies are offering these benefits but which is more important and where do they differ? This article is useful for both an employer looking to provide either plans as well as employees who are using them. 

Other Names for HSA and WSA

Health Spending Account (HSA) is often referred to as a Private Health Services Plan (PHSP). These names are used interchangeably and usually mean one and the same thing. For ease of reading, I will refer to these plans as a Health Spending Account (or HSA) for the rest of the article.

Additionally, a Wellness Spending Account (WSA) is also known as a Health and Wellness Plan (HWP) or Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA). For the purposes of this article, we will refer to these plans as a Wellness Spending Account (WSA).


What is the purpose of these spending accounts?

Both Health Spending Accounts and Wellness Spending Accounts are employee benefits. They are used by employers to improve employee satisfaction within the company. Ultimately, their purpose is aimed at different areas. A Health Spending Account supports employees on medical expenses relating directly to health, hence the name Health Spending Account. Some commonly claimed expenses in an HSA include dental checkups, prescription drugs, physiotherapy, and prescription glasses. These contribute and impact the health of an employee.

On the other hand, a Wellness Spending Account encourages employee wellness and healthy living. These plans typically provide spending allowances for things like gym memberships, classes, relationship counselling, or that new pair of running shoes. 

The other major difference between these spending accounts is tax based. WSA allowances are taxable for the employee. HSA allowances are non-taxable. This means WSA funds used up by an employee contribute to their yearly taxable income. This tax effect is likely minimal but still apparent.

What is eligible in a Wellness Spending Account (WSA)?

A Wellness Spending Account (WSA) is a taxable benefit. This means the amount used in an employee's WSA allowance contributes to their yearly taxable income. Unused dollars in a WSA plan do not add to an employees taxable income. Since WSAs are NOT a tax free benefit, its eligible expenses are not regulated by the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA).

Each WSA provider develops their own list of eligible WSA expenses. Alternatively, the provider can work with plan sponsors (employers) to determine eligible expenses.

Here are some common WSA eligible expenses:

  • Nutrition
    • Dietitian
    • Over-the-counter supplements
  • Fitness
    • Golf clubs
    • Trail running shoes
    • Frisbee
    • Bicycle helmet
    • Skis
  • Personal Development
    • Courses and textbooks
  • Mental Health
    • Hiking retreat
    • Hypnosis
    • Art therapy

What is eligible in a Health Spending Account (HSA)?

A Health Spending Account is tax free allowance used for medical expenses. It's an alternative to traditional private health insurance and is typically more cost effective and affordable for a small business. The plan is administered by a private company like Olympia but regulated by the CRA due to it's tax implications. As a result, eligible HSA expenses are determined by the CRA.

Here are some commonly claimed expenses in an HSA:

  • Prescription drugs
  • Massages (from a licensed professional)
  • Prescription glasses and sunglasses
  • Physiotherapy
  • Dental Costs

See a comprehensive list of all eligible expenses in an HSA.

How are eligible expenses determined in WSAs and HSAs?

As previously discussed, a Health Spending Account is a tax-free benefit. Therefore, eligible items are determined by the CRA. Providers of these HSA plans like Olympia Benefits are here to ensure that these plans follow the guidelines set forth by CRA. 

On the other hand, a Wellness Spending Account is a taxable benefit. Therefore, eligible items are determined by the provider.

How does a Health Spending Account work?

An HSA is an employer sponsored benefits plan which allocates tax-free dollars to the employees to spend on CRA-specific eligible expenses. Employers determine classifications for each employee with set limits. This can be based on factors like job title, age, years at work, or anything applicable. Employees pay for medical expenses personally and then claim for reimbursement through the HSA. If eligible, the employee is reimbursed using their yearly HSA allowance. Employees cannot surpass their HSA limit but do not have to spend all the money either. As a result, employers have cost control over how much expenses they will spend on health benefits in a given year. 

How does a Wellness Spending Account work?

A WSA will work similar to the HSA with the main difference being:

Allowance used in a WSA is added to an employee's taxable salary 

  • Each employee is designated a limit as to how much they can spend in their WSA
  • The limits are separated through classifications (they are based on factors determined by the employer such as job title, years of experience, or anything applicable)
  • The total of all employee limits is the maximum expense an employer can incur over a plan year
  • The employer allocates the previously agreed amount into the WSA in equal monthly installments
  • Employees pay for the expense personally and then make a claim with the WSA provider
  • If the expense is eligible, then the employee will be reimbursed using their WSA allowance. The expensed amount is added onto the employee’s total taxable income.
  • Employees do not have to spend all of their WSA allowance but cannot claim over their limit.
  • Employees can only be reimbursed for eligible expenses that pertain to the WSA guidelines set by the WSA provider

Advantages of using a Health Spending Accounts:

  • No premiums
  • Flexibility and choice for employees
  • Cost control and customization for employers
  • No unexpected or rising costs
  • Easy to use, no complex policies
  • No sunken costs, only pay what is used by employees and get unused dollars back
  • Can be built in with other insurance policies like disability and life
  • Tax free allowance for employees
  • Attract and retain top talent

Advantages of using a Wellness Spending Accounts:

  • No premiums
  • Flexibility and choice for employees
  • Cost control and customization for employers
  • Restrict employee allowance spending to wellness related expenses
  • Attract and retain top talent
  • Promote healthy lifestyles among your employees
  • Additional incentive for employees to take care of their health
  • Differentiate your benefits package from competitors
  • Great add-on to an HSA

Most companies start out with a Health Spending Account first as it replenishes an employee's most basic needs of health care. As an additional incentive, a WSA provides a good extra tier of employee spending on things that matter like active lifestyles and healthy living. In today's competitive recruitment environment, we see an increase of companies offering both.  

Learn more about tax-free health & dental benefits through a Health Spending Account:

Beginners Guide to Health Spending Accounts for small biz


Learn more about a Wellness Spending Account and its impact on employee morale:

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Related Reading:

Top 24 FAQ for Employee Benefits Package for small business

Top 53 FAQ about Olympia Health Spending Accounts

Health Spending Account Definitions

HSA vs insurance [2 ways to pay for medical expenses]

Do Employee Wellness Programs Actually Work?


Write off 100% of your medical expenses

Are you an incorporated business owner with no employees? Learn how to use a Health Spending Account to pay for your medical expenses through your corporation: 

Download the HSA Guide for Incorporated Individuals

Do you own a corporation with employees? Discover a tax deductible health and dental plan that has no premiums:

Download the HSA Guide for a Business with Staff

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