Self-Funded, Level-Funded and Fully-Funded Health Plans: Understanding the Differences

When it comes to offering health insurance to employees, employers have various options to consider. Self-funded or self-insured health plans, level-funded health plans, and fully-funded health plans are three prominent choices. Understanding the differences between these plans is crucial for both groups and insurance brokers. In this article, we will explore each type of plan, discuss the pros and cons, highlight potential tax regulations, and address any potential issues to watch out for.

Fully-Funded Health Plans

Fully-funded health plans are the traditional approach to providing health insurance, where employers contract with insurance carriers to offer coverage to employees. Key features include:

  • Employers pay premiums to insurance carriers, who assume financial risk and manage the plan benefits.
  • Coverage options and plan design are dictated by the insurance carrier.
  • Premiums are typically fixed for a year, based on factors such as age, location, and employee group profile.
Pros for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Predictable costs as employers pay fixed premiums throughout the policy period.
  • Limited financial risk, as insurance carriers assume responsibility for claims reimbursement.
  • Simplicity in plan administration and claims processing.
Cons for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Less flexibility in plan design and customization.
  • Limited access to claims data, reducing the ability to identify cost-saving opportunities.
  • Reliance on insurance carriers for administrative tasks and customer service.

Self-Funded or Self-Insured Health Plans

A self-funded or self-insured health plan is one in which the employer assumes the financial risk for providing healthcare benefits to its employees. Here’s how it works:

  • Employers pay for employees’ healthcare expenses directly, rather than purchasing coverage from an insurance company.
  • Employers may work with third-party administrators (TPAs) to handle claims processing and other administrative tasks.
  • Self-funded plans offer more flexibility and control over plan design, network selection, and cost management.
  • Employers assume the financial risk of high-cost claims but can set up stop-loss insurance to limit exposure.
Pros for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Potential for cost savings as employers avoid paying premiums to insurance carriers.
  • Flexibility in plan design, allowing customization to suit the needs of the employee group.
  • Ability to access claims data, providing insights for cost management and wellness initiatives.
Cons for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Financial risk associated with high-cost claims, which can create volatility in healthcare expenses.
  • Administration and management of claims can be complex and require expertise from TPAs.
  • Stop-loss insurance premiums may increase costs and offset potential savings.

Level-Funded Health Plans

Level-funded health plans combine elements of self-funded and fully-funded plans. Here’s an overview:

  • Level-funded plans are a type of self-funded plan that includes a level monthly payment arrangement.
  • Employers pay a fixed monthly amount to a funding vehicle managed by an insurance carrier.
  • The funding vehicle covers employees’ claims up to a specified amount and then relies on stop-loss insurance for any costs that exceed the predetermined limit.
  • If claims are lower than expected, the employer could receive a partial refund or premium credit.
Pros for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Level monthly payments offer greater predictability and stability compared to traditional self-funded plans.
  • Access to claims data helps in monitoring and managing healthcare costs.
  • Potential for cost savings if claims are lower than anticipated, as employers may receive refunds or premium credits.
Cons for Groups and Insurance Brokers:
  • Employers still assume some financial risk related to claim costs.
  • Stop-loss insurance premiums may offset potential savings.
  • Variability in claims activity can impact future renewals and rates.

Tax Regulations and Potential Issues

It’s important to be aware of tax regulations and potential issues when offering these plans:

  • Self-funded and level-funded plans are subject to specific compliance requirements regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
  • Fully-funded plans may be subject to certain taxes under the Affordable Care Act, such as the Health Insurance Tax (HIT).
  • All plans must adhere to the Affordable Care Act’s minimum essential coverage and essential health benefit requirements.

Understanding the differences between self-funded, level-funded and fully-funded health plans is essential for both groups and insurance brokers. Each type of plan offers distinct advantages and considerations related to cost, flexibility, financial risk, and administrative complexity. It is smart to navigate potential tax regulations and compliance requirements to ensure the chosen plan meets the needs of the employer group.

Insurance brokers play a crucial role in guiding employers through the decision-making process and helping them select the most appropriate health insurance option. Enrollment First is a great resource for brokers looking for guidance in assisting groups with selecting plans that work well for their particular circumstances.


  1. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – Self-Insured Health Plans and Taxes
  2. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – Health Insurance Tax (HIT)
  3. U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) – Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) Guidance
  4. U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) – Health Plans and Benefits