Top 5 Resources for Your FSA Open Enrollment



workspace with computer, pen, pencil and cup of coffeeOpen Enrollment is here and well underway for many companies.  Making important benefit decisions for you and your family can be critical, and we want you to know about the free FSA tools available to help you.  Before you enroll in your P&A Group Flex Spending Account (FSA), take advantage of these resources which include everything from explaining the plan and tax savings opportunities, to helping you determine how much to contribute and what expenses are eligible.  We’ve identified our top five P&A FSA resources and invite you to check them out.

  1. FSA Calculator – This interactive calculator lets you determine the estimated savings you’ll receive when you sign up for the FSA. Calculate your anticipated expenses and see how much you’ll save by enrolling.  Click here to access the calculator or when you log into your P&A My Benefits Account.
  1. Penny Panda Videos – Penny Panda, P&A’s newest spokesperson for everything FSA related, offers a series of four short educational videos that guide you through what you need to know about the FSA plan, how to log into your account and more. View Penny Panda on our Tools & Resource page here.
  1. FSA Store – Shop online for exclusive pre-approved eligible FSA expenses through our vendor partner FSA Store, which also offers an extensive eligible expense list of products and services. Plus, you also get $10 off your first order and free shipping on orders over $50.  Visit FSA Store here.
  1. FSA Glossary – There’s an abundance of acronyms and industry specific terms when it comes to your healthcare benefits. Unsure of what a specific FSA term or definition means?  View P&A’s FSA Glossary page here.
  1. Team of Customer Service & Benefit Professionals – Customer service simply cannot be replaced with technology, which is why we have a team of professionals ready to assist you with any questions about your P&A plans. You can also choose how you want to communicate – give our team a call, use the live online webchat feature (click “Chat Now”) or send us in e-mail inquiry through Contact Us.  Extended customer service hours are Monday – Friday, 8:30AM – 10:00PM ET.

Meet Penny Panda, Purveyor of Flex Spending Accounts


Penny is P&A’s unofficially “official” mascot, educator and all around lovable colleague who provides excellent guidance on everything related to a Flexible Spending Account (FSA).  Her job is to help participants and those interested in this pre-tax benefit understand the ins and outs of an FSA and the IRS rules that can sometimes seem daunting.  Through a series of brand new educational videos, Penny breaks down what an FSA exactly is, explains the cost-savings and benefits of enrolling in this account and shares insight on how an FSA works.  She also walks participants through logging into their P&A Account and shows them how to access important tools so that they can easily manage their plans.

Penny is a great addition to P&A and we can’t wait for you to meet her.  We welcome you to check out her new videos, accessible right on the P&A Group website here:

Don’t forget to check out P&A Group’s new YouTube channel!  Click here:

Re-designed Retirement Participant Portal Offers Improved Layout, Functionality

Dashboard - new retirement portal - track retirement


Dashboard - new retirement portal -portfolio & recent activity

Recently, P&A Retirement Plan Services overhauled the participant portal* and replaced it with a new modern look and feel.  Increasing user convenience and ease remained at the forefront of this re-model, and the new layout provides intuitive functionality embedded in a more aesthetically-minded design.  With a simplified navigation, the participant dashboard offers everything from account balance viewing to making changes to your investment choices and transferring money between funds.  You can even contact your Plan’s Financial Advisor directly once you’re logged into the portal.

While we hope participants enjoy the new portal, we’ll let you make up your own mind.  Interested in viewing the new design?  Click here to take a peek for yourself.

*This portal is accessible to P&A clients who obtain recordkeeping/investment platform services from P&A Group.

PCORI Fees Due by July 31

Deadline Time Business Concept


In 2010 the Affordable Care Act created a new entity known as PCORI, the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute.  Part of the Institute’s funding is through temporary fees imposed on group health plans, including Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) and Medical Expense Reimbursement Plans (MERPs).  These fees, which must be paid by the plan sponsor, are due by July 31 of the following plan year.

For example, a group with a calendar year plan of January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015, must submit their fees by July 31, 2016.

Click here to view more details about the excise tax and the fee schedule imposed on the annual deadline.

FSA Store Provides Online Shopping for Pre-Approved FSA Eligible Expenses


June, which is designated as national safety month, also marks the official start of summer and kicks off summer vacation for many people.  While you may not necessarily be thinking about your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) as you lay by the pool, there are seasonal products and services that you should be aware are FSA eligible.  Why not stock up on summer essentials and save money by using your FSA?  Here’s a quick peek at some common items that you can purchase with your FSA and use during the summer months:

  • Emergency medical kits and first aid kits (this will especially come in handy if you’re traveling this summer or going camping)
  • Prescription sunglasses
  • Sunscreen over SPF 15
  • The cost of summer day camp for children under age 13 (you must be enrolled in the Dependent Day Care FSA)
  • Motion sickness aids

FSA Store, P&A’s partner vendor, offers an online plethora of pre-approved FSA eligible expenses that you can purchase from your computer or mobile device with your FSA Benefits Card.  Save time and money by shopping for items that you know are FSA eligible, and stock up on supplies for you and your family.  FSA Store offers an extensive eligible expense list, live online chat for inquiries, sales and other perks.  To check out FSA Store, visit


Flip flops and sunglasses on wooden planks and water

Save time and money when you use your FSA for pre-approved summer essential items.


Customer Service Lessons from the Queen (Bey)



Earlier this April, one of today’s most popular musical artists, Beyoncé, debuted her new album, Lemonade, on Tidal.  (For those of you not familiar, Tidal is a music streaming service.)  Since then, fans and critics alike are weighing in on the meaning behind the lyrics and songs on the album and trying to decipher just really what Lemonade is telling us.  Many feel the songs are autobiographical, highlighting the ups and downs of Beyoncé’s marriage and personal life.  Regardless of your opinion about Beyoncé or her music, Lemonade proves to be a success.  Which, got us thinking about a different kind of parallel and message behind this album.  If speculation about her tribulations are accurate, did Lemonade just prove the old adage, you know, the one about making lemonade out of lemons?

That’s something we can get behind.

The Customer Service Paradox

Training Room 2During our introductory Customer Service training, one of the topics covered by the P&A Learning and Development Team is the “Customer Service Paradox,” which is when a customer feels a higher level of satisfaction when a problem has been handled well than if the problem never occurs in the first place.  While we strive for 100% customer care and satisfaction we do recognize that sometimes mistakes can happen.  What we’ve learned is how you identify and fix those mistakes is what defines you, both as an individual and as an organization.  Because of this, it’s critical to know how to identify a problem and just as essential to have the tools to be able to rectify any issues.

The Tools:  Kaizen & the Closed-Loop Feedback Process

Continuous, incremental improvement is a philosophy identified by Japanese culture as kaizen.  Translated, it means “change” (kai) “for the good” (zen).  Kaizen is rooted in the belief that everything is capable of being improved.  So, when applying this to organizational development and customer service, the opportunity for improved processes, procedures and ways of thinking creates a continual flow of new ideas and ways we can better serve our clients and participants.  The art of Kaizen is applied to what we identify here as the Closed-Loop Feedback Process, which is the actual process of improving something.  In order for this to be effective, you have to be able to identify a problem and take action on how to fix or improve the problem or process.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

So, while we’re not exactly making lemonade here at P&A, it’s similar to what we do when applying the Closed-Loop Feedback Process.  We believe in turning a negative into a positive and creating solutions for problems as they arise.  Because, as much as we would like everything to run perfectly smooth all the time, that’s a bit unrealistic.  But, by evoking changes and embracing improvements and executing them, we remain committed to delivering great customer service.  And, if that somehow doesn’t happen?  Well, then we make changes.  We implement a new process or explore new ways to develop a better approach.  We’re constantly working to improve – that’s what it’s all about.  Here, we don’t settle for lemons– we use them to create a better service or product.

Celebrate National Employee Benefits Day (NEBD)


Mark your calendars benefit professionals, for today is, officially, National Employee Benefits Day!  For many of us in the employee benefits field, every day may seem like NEBD, but today is set aside especially to “recognize trustees, administrators, benefit practitioners and professional advisors for their dedication to providing quality benefits and the important role they plan in their colleagues’ well-being.” 

The employee benefits field is multifaceted and can be challenging at times, but to be able to help so many clients, brokers and participants is extremely rewarding.  Changing regulations, health care reform, payroll issues, and COBRA penalties are just some of the pains benefit professionals face, but with access to the right tools and the right benefits administrator, these challenges can be overcome with solutions.

At the P&A Group, our priority is to provide solutions for the daily pains our clients, brokers and HR professionals face.  In the benefits field, while we don’t have a tangible off-the-shelf product we can give our clients, what we can offer is customer service, knowledge, experience and technology.  What really sets us apart is our invaluable team of dedicated benefits professionals, ready and eager to help each client.  We understand that each company is unique and has different needs, and we work diligently to provide the best solutions for each individual group.

Today we want to thank everyone who comprises the employee benefits industry.  From our staff to clients, to HR professionals and competitors alike – navigating the benefits field is no easy task, and today you deserve to be recognized for your dedication and commitment to the benefits community.  Thank you for your service to the field.  To our P&A Employees (Pandas), thank you especially for continually setting the bar high with your innovation, enthusiasm and resolve.

403(b) Plans – What You Need to Know to Control Costs

by Dan Halle, Regional Director of Retirement Plan Sales

Group of corporate business people having a meeting

Understanding important characteristics of retirement plans help employers maintain more control over their plan offerings.  Recent changes to the structure of 403(b) plans make it a more viable option for some employers but there are crucial elements plan sponsors need to be aware of that can help reduce investment costs and employee confusion.  First, let’s look at how regulatory changes have impacted 403(b) plans and how they fare compared to 401(k) plans.

Regulatory Changes

New IRS regulations governing 403(b) plans came out in 2009, 43 years after comprehensive IRS guidance was first released for 403(b) plans.  These rules, which are written for both ERSIA and non-ERISA 403(b) plans, cover plans sponsored by public sector educational institutions, churches, government, and non-profit organizations.  Their intent is twofold:  1) to rein in the insurance company dominated marketplace and 2) to begin the process of making 403(b) plans operate more like their greater efficient 401(k) counterpart by bringing increased scrutiny to the operation, fee structure and practices prevalent in the 403(b) retirement plans.

401(k) vs. 403(b) Plans

Distinct differences between 401(k) and 403(b) plans have allowed large insurance companies that dominate the 403(b) market place to react slowly to these IRS regulations as they continue operating with a “divide and conquer” approach.  For example, the 403(b) market has long been highly individualized and focused on retail pricing while the for-profit based 401(k) market has been more focused on pooling individuals into group plans and institutional pricing. Additionally, each plan has its own provider model. Most employer sponsored 403(b) plans offer a multiple-provider model where their employees can select annuity products from several different insurance companies. This might sound like a benefit but these products often have the same investments within them, creating confusion, fund overlap and higher pricing due to multiple products with differing fee schedules. On the other hand, most 401(k) plans use the single-provider model that offers a multi-fund family platform, letting participants select investments from several different fund companies housed on a single platform, which allows for asset pooling and lower pricing.

In the multiple provider model offered for most 403(b) plans, fixed and variable annuities known as Tax-Sheltered Annuities (TSAs) have long been the product of choice by some of the largest insurance companies.  Nearly 80% of participants’ 403(b) retirement money resides in individually-priced fixed or variable annuities. These individually-priced annuities typically have high investment, mortality and risk expenses that drastically reduce the investment performance. They normally have long and costly surrender penalties if money is withdrawn. By using these products that do not recognize group pricing and pooling of assets, the insurers offering these products have been able to effectively “divide and conquer” the retirement plan, allowing them to keep their expenses and margins higher than those offered in the corporate 401(k) plan.  This eliminates the plan sponsor’s ability to effectively negotiate lower fees for their plan and participants. What’s more, many well-intended employers trying to offer more choices for their employees have allowed several annuity products from differing companies in their plan, which further hinders employers’ control.  Fiduciary liability is another big issue affecting 403(b) plan sponsors and in some cases their board of directors.  As a fiduciary, the employer representative or trustee is tasked with ensuring that the plan is run in the best interest of the employee.  Plan trustees and board members can be held personally liable if there is a breach of this fiduciary responsibility. Because of this, the trustee needs to not only understand the pricing structure, fund offering and operation of the plan but also feel comfortable it is being run in the best interest of the employee.  If there is a multiple-provider structure to the TSA and a long list of annuities being sold, it can be difficult for the trustee to fully understand what is being offered to the employee.  This can present fiduciary and legal issues in the future.

As an employer sponsoring a 403(b) plan, what can you do to take more control and move towards a single-provider platform that helps reduce employee confusion and investment costs? Here are some things to consider:

  • Hire a consultant or advisor that understands both ERISA laws and the pricing and fee structures associated with TSA accounts. You may want to work with an advisor who will partner with you as a fiduciary.
  • Move away from more costly, individual TSA products. Use a single-provider option that is priced on a group basis. These platforms mirror the products available to group 401(k) plans. Moving to a single provider gives the employees the ability to select mutual funds from some of the best known mutual fund providers and pools the participants’ assets for pricing purposes. The single-provider structure also allows plan trustees to better manage what is being offered to the participants, providing more negotiating power when working with the various product platforms available.
  • Create a plan to stop new contributions into these higher-cost products. In some contracts, each new contribution activates a new deferred sales charge. This can further extend the time it takes to move from these TSA contracts. Some 403(b) providers can provide a buyout to help absorb these deferred sales charges. The key to remember is that the process will take some time. Put together a multi-year strategy that moves the plan assets to a new provider and stick to it.
  • Avoid products with long, back-end deferred sales charges. Today’s retirement products typically do not have any back-end deferred sales charges. It is rarely advisable to enter into these contracts.

The regulatory updates were meant to help plan sponsors and trustees of 403(b) plans better manage their retirement plans and fiduciary obligations. Unfortunately, the industry supplying products for these plans has been slow to embrace the transition. However, the advent of many new 403(b) products is allowing employers to better control costs while increasing fund choices. As a trustee, fiduciary or board member for a 403(b) plan, you should consider working with an independent advisor who is willing to share fiduciary liability and who can provide you with the advice and planning needed to move your organization away from these standard TSA products.

A Tribute to Debby Obstarczyk

How do you truly adequately put into words the entirety of someone’s life and the imprint they’ve left behind?  You don’t, but you can try.

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Debby Obstarczyk (left) and Jen Boyne (right)

Debby Obstarczyk, Manager of P&A Group Retirement Plan Services since 1995 , was the kind of person who you wanted to be around and whose infectious positive attitude always lifted your spirits.  She was courageous, strong, independent, and made you want to be that way too.  Debby was many things to many different people and while her passing has no doubt left a void in our lives, her memory lives on in our hearts.   After a long and brave battle against cancer, Debby finally found peace on January 30.  Today we celebrate Debby’s life and how special she was.

Juli M., VP of Operations, shares memories of Debby O:

I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to know Debby. She was a dear friend, respected colleague, mentor, teacher and confidant. She had a way to lift your spirits whether with kind words, a compliment, her positive attitude, or perhaps a piece of chocolate from her “special” basket.

When I first joined P&A, Debby made me feel welcome and took it upon herself to mentor me. She not only was very intelligent and skilled in her profession, she had tremendous patience and was an excellent teacher breaking down some pretty complex rules into plain English. She made you feel comfortable if you had questions and encouraged you to ask them.  I’m not the only person who considered her my mentor- she took every new addition to our team under her wing and advised them professionally and personally. Debby made everyone smile brighter and walk taller – from giving encouragement to a co-worker nervous about attending a conference or client meeting for the first time to taking in a co-worker’s cat (“Zable”) when he moved out of town. A true professional, Debby was always dressed to impress- she had quite a collection of blazers and beautiful brooches to suit every occasion.

Personally, Debby’s stories of her beloved “cousins club” made you feel like you were a part of the fun and it gave you a glimpse into the full life she led outside of the office.  She would talk of the “Oscar” parties, birthday club luncheons with her cousins and sisters, performances at the Buffalo Philharmonic, Shea’s Performing Arts and many other local theaters.

A talented baker, she loved to surprise everyone with a sweet treat every now and then.   Debby would take every Thanksgiving Eve off to make her delicious pies for her family.  She so enjoyed and loved her family. She brought Christmas to the office every year, hanging delicate snowflakes from the ceiling tiles and decorating a Christmas tree for the department.  She even shared a trick about stringing lights on the tree that she learned from her days working at the Sample Store.

Most of all she loved her sons and their families. She was so proud of her son’s artistic abilities- his works were displayed in her office with such pride.  Becoming “grum-grum” was her most treasured accomplishment. She loved her grandchildren with every fiber of her being and spoke so often of all of them. Their pictures were her computer screen saver and she shared their smiles with us every chance she had.

I feel so blessed to have had the gift of Debby’s friendship. She taught me so many life lessons that extend way beyond the office. I admire her independence, confidence and bravery and will treasure the memories of the moments we shared.

In honor of Debby, we ask that you take a moment today and do something kind for someone else.  Please pass on this message.  To our beloved Debby, we miss and love you.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”