Category Archives: Health Insurance Marketplace

Rust Never Sleeps: ACA Large Employer Tax Liability is Forever

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Ordinarily under the Internal Revenue Code (Code), when a taxpayer files a return reporting tax liability (or absence thereof), the filing of the return triggers a period of time during which the IRS can challenge the reported tax liability.  This period is referred to as a “statute of limitations” and the customary period under Section 6501(a) of the Code expires three years after the “return” is filed.  As is explained below, a form must meet certain criteria to be considered a “return” that, once filed, starts the statute of limitations running.

The IRS Office of Chief Counsel has stated, in a memorandum dated December 26, 2019, that because there is no actual return filed reporting ACA taxes owed by Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) under Code Section 4980H, the statute of limitations on the IRS’s ability to collect the taxes never begins to run, even though ALEs annually file Form 1094-C transmittal forms with IRS each year, along with copies of Form 1095-C statements furnished to full-time employees (and part-time employees covered under self-insured group health plans).  Therefore, ALEs remain potentially liable for Code Section 4980H excise taxes for an indefinite period.  The IRS has been actively collecting ACA taxes from Applicable Large Employers owed for calendar years since 2015 and presumably will continue to do so.  This significant amount of potential tax liability will only grow, not wear away, under the IRS stated policy.

Below we spell out how the IRS concluded that it has an open-ended ability to assess ACA penalties.

By way of background, the IRS uses the term “Employer Shared Responsibility Payments” or “ESRP” to refer to the excise tax imposed on Applicable Large Employers under Code § 4980H if they don’t meet their ACA duties to offer affordable, minimum value or higher coverage to full-time employees.

There are two different taxes:

  • The 4980H(a) tax which applies if at least one full-time employee qualifies for premium tax credits on an exchange, and the employer fails to offer minimum essential coverage to at least 95% of its full time employees (or all but 5 of its full-time employees, if 5 is greater than 5%). This tax, currently set at $2,570 annually, is calculated by multiplying that amount times all full-time employees, minus the first 30.  (The tax was $2,500 for 2019).  Depending on the number of full-time employees, this tax can mount quickly.
  • The 4980H(b) tax applies if the employer fails to offer affordable, minimum value or higher coverage to that employee. This tax, currently set at $3,860 annually, is calculated by multiplying that amount times only the number of those full-time employees who qualify for premium tax credits on the exchange.  (The tax was $3,750 for 2019).  This tax can never exceed in amount what the ALE would owe under the (a) tax if it did not offer minimum essential coverage.

It is important to note that Applicable Large Employers do not calculate or report ESRP amounts on corporate or other business tax returns or on any other type of “penalty” return, even though other types of excise taxes are reported on dedicated IRS forms (e.g., Form 5330, Return of Excise Taxes Related to Employee Benefit Plans).

Instead, ALEs annually file with the IRS Form 1094-C, Transmittal of Employer-Provided Health Insurance Offer and Coverage Information Returns, together with copies of the individual Form 1095-C Employer-Provided Offer and Coverage statements furnished to full-time employees.  Using this information, the IRS determines which full-time employees might have triggered an ESRP each month in a given year based on the reported offer of coverage (or lack thereof), their employment status for the month, and, among other factors, the cost of coverage offered for the month.  The IRS also receives reports from the exchanges (Form 1094-A Health Insurance Marketplace Statement) on advance payment of premium tax credits to individuals.  By checking the employees’ Form 1040 returns, the IRS then determines, based on household income, which of those full-time employees were entitled to retain some or all of the premium tax credits advanced to them by the exchanges.  Full-time employees’ retention of premium tax credits, teamed with the information reported on Forms 1094-C and 1095-C, triggers imposition of the ESRP on the Applicable Large Employer.  The IRS notifies the ALE of its intention to assess ACA penalties via Letter 226-J, related forms, and subsequent correspondence.

Applicable Large Employers have advocated that Form 1094-C and attached employee statements are returns that, when filed, trigger the three-year statute of limitations under Code Section 6501.  In its memorandum, the Office of Chief Counsel concludes that this is not the case, because the data disclosed on Forms 1094-C and 1095-C is insufficient to calculate tax liability – it only provides part of the information the IRS needs to calculate the tax, the rest of which is obtained from the exchanges, and from full-time employees’ tax returns.  Disclosure of information that is sufficient to calculate tax liability is one of four criteria used to determine when a tax form, when filed, is sufficient to trigger the running of the statute of limitations, as set forth in Beard v. Commissioner, 82 Tax Court 766, 777 (1984), aff’d. 793 F.2d 139 (6th Cir. 1986).[1]

Because the ACA forms do disclose sufficient information to calculate tax liability and thus do not trigger the “filed return” statute of limitations, any other applicable statute of limitations would have to be set forth by Congress in Section 4980H itself.  Citing numerous federal cases holding that no statute of limitations may be imposed absent Congressional intent, and noting that Section 4980H contains no statute of limitations, the memorandum concludes that the Service is not subject to any limitations period for assessing Section 4980H payment.

What this means to Applicable Large Employers is that they now have an added incentive, in the form of minimizing open ended potential tax liability, to ensure that they are offering affordable, minimum value or higher coverage to their full-time employees for so long as the ACA’s ESRP provisions remain in place.  They must also continue to timely and accurately file and furnish Forms 1094-C and 1095-C, respectively, as failing to do so triggers its own tax penalties, which were recently increased.  However, because these Forms do not trigger running of any statute of limitations on collection of the underlying Section 4980H excise tax, there is no “value add” in ongoing ACA reporting compliance.

[1]  The other criteria are that the document must purport to be a return, there must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law, and the taxpayer must execute the return under penalties of perjury.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2020 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo credit:  Annie Spratt (Unsplash)

 

 

 

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Applicable Large Employer Reporting, Covered California, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace

Exchange Subsidy Notices: Prelude to ACA Tax Assessments

After a one-year delay, the federally-facilitated exchange (www.healthcare.gov) has begun mailing Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) notices listing employees who qualified for and received advance payment of premium tax credits or cost sharing reductions (collectively, “exchange subsidies”) for one or more months to date in 2016.  There is a model federal subsidy notice; state-facilitated health exchanges may use their own subsidy notices. In 2016, the notices will go to mailing addresses that employees supplied while enrolling on an exchange and hence may include worksite addresses rather than an employer’s administrative headquarters.  For that reason, ALEs should track all work locations for receipt of the exchange notices.

Each notice will identify one or more employees who received subsidies in 2016, and if the names include those of full-time employees who were offered affordable, minimum value or higher coverage (or enrolled in coverage, even if unaffordable) for the period involved, an appeal is appropriate and must be made within 90 days of the date on the exchange subsidy notice. This Employer Appeal Request Form may be used for http://www.healthcare.gov as well as the following state-based exchanges:  California, Colorado, D.C., Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.  The appeals process is carried out via mail or fax this year but will eventually convert to a digital format.

Remember, these exchange subsidy notices are not themselves assessments of ACA penalty taxes which is a separate process carried out by IRS. And the IRS will assess ACA penalty taxes for 2015 without benefit of subsidy notices for that year.   However the subsidy notices now being released do provide a “heads up” regard to potential 2016 tax liability, and by filing an appeal an ALE can build the file it will need in the event of a later penalty tax assessment. Not only will a timely appeal document the fact that no ACA penalty tax should apply, it may also prevent the employee in question from later having to refund subsidy amounts to IRS, either through a reduced tax refund or with out-of-pocket funds.

In this regard, ALEs should keep in mind that coverage that is unaffordable for exchange purposes (i.e. entitles an individual to exchange subsidies) may be affordable for employer safe harbor/penalty assessment purposes (i.e., prevents assessment of an ACA employer penalty tax). They both use the same affordability percentage – 9.66% in 2016 – but apply it to different base amounts.  The exchanges look at the employee’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which may be higher than the employer’s safe harbor definition (for instance when the employee’s household includes other wage earners), or may be smaller than the employer’s safe harbor definition (for instance, when the employee has large student loan interest expenses and/or alimony payments, both of which are excluded from MAGI).  Thus there will be instances in which an employer bears no ACA penalty liability with regard to coverage that is unaffordable for exchange purposes. The appeals process will make available to an employer information as to whether an employee’s household income exceeded the affordability threshold for exchange subsidies, along with other data used to establish eligibility for exchange subsidies.  A flowchart of the exchange subsidy notice and appeals process follows:Flowchart for Handling Exchange Subsidy Notices

We do not yet have details on how the IRS will go about assessing ACA penalties on ALEs for 2015 and subsequent years, other than that employers will have an opportunity to contest a tax assessment. All the more reason to engage in the appeal process, where appropriate, with regard to subsidy notices.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Covered California, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, Premium Tax Credits, State Exchange

Automatic Enrollment: Another Bone in the ACA Graveyard?

UPDATE:  President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 described below, on November 2, 2015.

In the five years since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, a number of its provisions have died the legislative death known as repeal.  If enacted, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 currently pending in Congress would add another bone to the ACA graveyard, in that it would repeal Section 1511 of the Affordable Care Act, which, through amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, would have required employers with more than 200 full-time employees to automatically enroll new full-time employees in their group health plans, subject to later opt-out.  The original effective date of this provision was unclear, but the Department of Labor put its enforcement on hold until regulations issued.  No regulations were issued, and now it looks like this provision, which was never a high-priority ACA item for the government, may never go into effect.

Other ACA measures that have previously been repealed include the mandated expansion of the definition of a “small employer,” for small group market purposes, from 50 to 100 employees. Although originally slated to take effect nationally for plan or policy years beginning on or after January 1, 2016, the PACE Act of 2015 made expansion of the definition is now a state-by-state decision (and as we discussed earlier, California’s expansion is slated to go into effect for 2016).

Another prior ACA casualty of note to employers was repeal of the cap on annual deductible amounts for health plans in the small group market, which happened (essentially retroactively) under the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014.   (The repealed limits would have been $2,000 for an individual and $4,000 for a family.)  The ACA continues to cap annual maximum out-of-pocket amounts, and further requires that, effective for 2016 plan years, that a separate individual out-of-pocket maximum (an “embedded” maximum) applies to each person covered under family coverage, even before the family maximum is reached.

In the ACA’s earlier days, legislators put a stake in the heart of the free choice voucher provisions, which would have required employers who offered a group health plan to provide vouchers to certain employees to enable them to purchase exchange coverage.  The first major ACA casualty was and the public long-term care insurance program for employees, (“CLASS Act”), which was repealed, without ever having gone into effect, in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

The last two ACA provisions that employers would most like to see repealed are the Cadillac tax, slated to go into effect in 2018, and nondiscrimination rules for fully-insured group health plans. Plans to implement the Cadillac tax, set forth in Internal Revenue Code § 4980I, appear to be progressing forward, as the IRS has issued two pieces of guidance this year, in the form of Notices 2015-16 and  2015-52, proposing interpretations of the rule and soliciting public comments on a number of points.  The fate of the nondiscrimination rule for insured plans, codified at Public Health Service Act § 2716, and incorporated into the Code via Section 9815, is less certain.  The rule is intended to provide, for non-grandfathered insured plans, a parallel to the nondiscrimination rules applicable to self-insured plans under Code § 105(h). In general terms, such a rule may make certain plan designs, including many executive/management “carve outs” such as special coverage tiers and accelerated plan entry, difficult or impossible to sustain.  In 2011, the IRS delayed enforcement of the rule until regulations were issued and no regulations have issued to date.  And since then, it has not included the rule on its annual list of priority tax guidance projects, including the most recent version for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, as updated for the first quarter of that period.  The IRS could still issue nondiscrimination guidance any time, however, and employers with non-grandfathered, insured plans should not assume that repeal will rescue them from this additional compliance burden.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, California AB 1083, California Insurance Laws, California SB 125, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, Nondiscrimination Rules for Insured Health Plans, Small Group Coverage, Small Group Expansion

California Scheduled to Expand Small Group Definition Despite PACE Act

On October 7, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Protecting Affordable Coverage for Employees (PACE) Act which repeals provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and the Public Health Service Act, that effective January 1, 2016 would otherwise mandate expansion of the definition of “small employer” subject to insurance market reforms, from employers with 1 to 50 employees, to those with up to 100 employees. (This is actually a “look-back” test based on employee headcounts over the prior calendar year).  As discussed in this prior post, the market reform provisions, including modified community rating to determine premiums, and prohibitions on dollar limits on essential health benefits, are expected to significantly increase the cost of coverage for employers with 51 to 100 employees who will be joining the small group market for the first time.

Although the PACE Act repeals the federally-mandated expansion of the “small employer” definition, it leaves states the discretion to expand the definition on their own schedule.  As previously reported, California already enacted legislation in 2012, A.B. 1083, that expands the definition of small employer to employers with 1 to 100 employees, effective for plan or policy years beginning on or after January 1, 2016.  And in S.B. 125, earlier this year, California also adopted the use of the ACA’s full-time and full-time equivalent method of counting employees towards the small employer threshold.  When enacting S.B. 125, California had the opportunity to postpone small group expansion but did not do so.  Therefore the California small group market expansion will occur in 2016 unless California legislators take quick action by the end of the year to repeal the expansion, now codified in the California Insurance and Health and Safety Codes, or extend its effective date.  Of course, if is possible that the California legislature will not make any changes to the small employer definition, and small group expansion will occur in 2016.

We will continue to monitor developments on this topic.

Please note that an additional provision of S.B. 125 – changing open enrollment under the California state health exchange – Covered California, to match the November 1 – January 31 open enrollment period used by the federally-facilitated exchange, is scheduled to take effect November 1, 2015.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, California Insurance Laws, California SB 1034, California SB 125, Covered California, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, PACE Act of 2015, PPACA, Small Group Coverage, Small Group Expansion, State Exchange

SCOTUS Rulings Highlight ACA Paradox

The two landmark rulings by the Supreme Court last week – one upholding the ability of the federal health exchange to award premium tax credits, and one upholding the right of same-sex couples to be married in all 50 states – would not appear to be interrelated.  However the back-to-back rulings highlight an unusual paradox in the ACA regarding access to premium tax credits.  Specifically, by marrying and forming “households” for income tax purposes, individuals may lose eligibility for premium tax credits that they qualified for based only on their individual income.  This has always been the case for married couples – both opposite-sex and same-sex — but it may come as news to same-sex couples now seeking to marry in states that prohibited such unions prior to the Supreme Court ruling.

To understand this ACA paradox – that married status may reduce or eliminate premium tax credit eligibility – some background is helpful.

Since January 1, 2014, state health exchanges and the federal exchange have made advance payments of premium tax credits to carriers on behalf of otherwise eligible individuals with household income between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL).  For a single individual this translates to annual household income in 2015 between $11,770 – $47,080.  (For individuals in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA, premium tax credit eligibility starts at 133% (effectively 138%) of FPL, which translates to $16,243.)

For these purposes, “household income” is the modified adjusted gross income of the taxpayer and his or her spouse, and spouses must file a joint return in order to qualify for premium tax credits except in cases of domestic abuse or spousal abandonment.  A taxpayer’s household income also includes amounts earned by claimed dependents who were required to file a personal income tax return (i.e., had earned income in 2015 exceeding $6,300 or passive income exceeding $1,000).   Generally speaking, same-sex adult partners will not qualify as “qualifying relative” tax dependents, in the absence of total and permanent disability.

Therefore, adult couples sharing a home in the absence of marriage or a dependent relationship will be their own individual households for tax purposes and for purposes of qualifying for advance payment of premium tax credits.  Conversely, adult couples who marry must file a joint tax return save for rare circumstances, and their individual incomes will be combined for purposes of premium tax credit eligibility.  By way of example, two cohabiting adults each earning 300% of FPL in 2015 ($35,310) will separately qualify for advance payment of premium tax credits in 2015, presuming their actual income matches what they estimated during enrollment.  However once the couple marries, their combined household income of $70,620 will exceed 400% of FPL for a household of two ($63,720), and they will lose eligibility for premium tax credits.

The rules for figuring tax credit eligibility for a year in which a couple marries or separates are quite complex.  The instructions to IRS Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit return, provide some guidance but the advice of a CPA or other tax professional may be required.

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling last week, the Department of Health and Human Services instructed the exchanges to follow IRS guidance recognizing persons in lawful same-sex marriages as “spouses” for purposes of federal tax law, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor.  That ruling recognized same-sex marriages under federal law provided that they were lawfully conducted in a state or other country, but fell short of declaring same-sex marriage as a Constitutional right that must be made available in all U.S. states.   It is likely that HHS will update guidance to the exchanges to reflect the recent, more expansive ruling on this issue.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Affordable Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Fringe Benefits, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, Premium Tax Credits, Same-Sex Marriage

Possible Outcomes from King v. Burwell

Update:  The Supreme Court upheld the provision of subsidies on the federal exchange in a 6-3 decision issued on June 25, 2015.

On March 4, 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in King v. Burwell, a case that variously has been characterized as an attack on the ACA and the potential death knell of that complicated law.  There is no question that the Supreme Court’s decision in this matter, which is expected to issue in late June 2015, will have immediate and significant ramifications for millions of individuals, their employers, and the health care industry.  Specifically at issue is whether the approximately 6 million individuals who receive federal subsidies towards the purchase of health insurance on the “federally facilitated exchange” or “FFE,” also known as healthcare.gov, can continue receiving those subsidies, or whether the subsidies may only be awarded in the approximately 17 states, including California and the District of Columbia, that sponsor their own health exchanges.  The impact of the King decision naturally will be largest in the approximately 34 states whose residents use the FFE, but its likely damage to the health insurance market as a whole will be felt in every state.  It also will have a major impact on “applicable large employers” (“ALEs”) under the ACA (those employing, on average, 50 or more full-time employees, including full-time equivalents).  That is because no employer “pay or play” penalty taxes apply to an ALE unless at least one of its full-time employees (30 or more hours/week) has qualified for premium tax credits on a health exchange.[1]  Below we look at the facts of the case, the legal arguments on both sides, possible outcomes in the Supreme Court decision, and finally what might happen if the Court decides in favor of the King plaintiffs.

Facts Relevant to the Case

There are fairly few facts relevant to King v. Burwell because it is essentially a “test case” funded by a conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  The plaintiffs (technically, “Petitioners”) are several lower-income residents of Virginia, a state that did not establish its own exchange.  Lead plaintiff David King is a limousine driver.  The grievance that the plaintiffs have in common is that the Federally Facilitated Exchange that functions in Virginia gives them access to premium tax credits at www.healthcare.gov, which are received in the form of immediate subsidies towards coverage, then reconciled against actual household income each April.  As a consequence of access to tax credits, individual health coverage is “affordable” to them (premiums do not exceed 8.1% of income).  Because affordable coverage is available to them, effective January 1, 2014 they must either purchase the coverage or pay a penalty tax.  If the premium tax credits were not available in Virginia, a non-state-exchange state, coverage would be unaffordable to them and they would not have to either buy coverage or pay a tax penalty.  In essence they are arguing that access to premium tax credits in a non-exchange state exposes them to a tax they would not have to pay if there were no federally-run exchanges.  This argument failed to succeed in federal district court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

The Legal Arguments

King v. Burwell is materially different from the Supreme Court’s prior major ACA case, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ , 132 S. Ct. 2566, 183 L. Ed.2d 450 (2012).  The NFIB case challenged the constitutionality of the individual mandate, which requires individuals to secure health insurance for themselves and their families, or pay a tax penalty.  The challengers to the law characterized this as an overreach of Congress’ powers under the U.S. Constitution.  In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the individual mandate was within Congress’ powers to impose taxes on U.S. citizens.

In the King case, by contrast, the challengers are not claiming that the ACA violates the Constitution.  They are instead looking at a few lines of text of the 906-page law that relate to how premium tax credits are calculated. The language, which is codified at Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 36B(b)(2)(A), is as follows (italicized text):


(b) Premium assistance credit amount

For purposes of this section—

(1) In general

The term “premium assistance credit amount” means, with respect to any taxable year, the sum of the premium assistance amounts determined under paragraph (2) with respect to all coverage months of the taxpayer occurring during the taxable year.

(2) Premium assistance amount

The premium assistance amount determined under this subsection with respect to any coverage month is the amount equal to the lesser of—

(A) the monthly premiums for such month for 1 or more qualified health plans offered in the individual market within a State which cover the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or any dependent (as defined in section 152) of the taxpayer and which were enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [. . . . ]

The challengers argue that Congress would not have defined the calculation of premium tax credits with specific reference to “State” exchanges unless it intended to limit access to premium tax credits to state-run exchanges.

The government argues that the ACA must be interpreted as a whole, and that other section of the law are meaningless or absurd if premium tax credits are limited to state-run exchanges.  In particular they point to Section 1321 of the ACA which authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to establish an exchange on behalf of a state, and argue that a federally-run exchange would have no function or purpose if it did not award premium tax credits.    The government also argues that, if the Court found the ACA to be ambiguous on this point, it must defer to the federal agency charged with interpreting the provision, and that agency, the IRS, had already issued final regulations under Code Section 36B stating that premium tax credits are equally available on state-run and federally-run exchanges.

Oral Argument in King v. Burwell

During approximately 90 minutes of oral argument on March 4, 2015, it became fairly clear that the four “liberal” Justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) favored the government’s arguments, and that the three “conservative” justices (Alito, Scalia and Thomas) favored the challengers’ position.   The swing votes that will decide the outcome belong to Chief Justice John Roberts, who was almost silent during oral argument, and Justice Kennedy, whose line of questioning could be viewed as potentially sympathetic to the government’s position.

One issue that appeared to have traction with Justice Kennedy, and thus could possibly determine the outcome, was whether, under the challenger’s interpretation of the law, the ACA “coerced” states into starting their own exchanges by making them the only route to premium tax credits.  Federal coercion of the states would present a serious Constitutional problem, in Justice Kennedy’s words.   In fact, the Supreme Court held in its prior ACA decision that the federal government could not coerce states into expanding access to Medicaid by conditioning their access to all Medicaid money on their agreement to expand Medicaid.

Further, all of the Justices who commented seemed very conscious that a decision for the challengers could push individual insurance markets in the non-exchange states into a “death spiral” and eventual collapse.  This is because the ACA’s three main components are insurance market reforms, such as prohibiting pre-existing condition exclusions, that increase insurers exposure to risk, the individual mandate, which brings young and healthy people into the individual insurance market to mitigate that risk, and finally the premium tax credits, which make individual coverage available to people who otherwise could not afford it.  Without premium tax credits to attract younger, healthier people towards insurance, the argument goes, only the sickest individuals would purchase insurance and the health insurance industry would enter a “death spiral.”   A similar phenomenon has occurred in the past in individual states that attempted aggressive market reforms without mitigating measures.

Most Supreme Court observers concluded that the government fared slightly better during oral argument than did the ACA challengers, but were quick to add that this has little predictive value with regard to the Court’s eventual written opinion.

Possible Outcomes from the Court

It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not need to hear the King v. Burwell case; it voluntarily agreed to review the 4th Circuit court decision against the challengers even though there was no direct conflict at the federal appeal court level.  (ACA challengers had succeeded in the D.C. Circuit court in Halbig v. Burwell, a similar ACA challenge case, but that “panel” decision by the D.C. Circuit had been vacated so that all sitting judges could hear the case.  The “en banc” hearing of Halbig is on hold pending decision in King v. Burwell. )   Thus it is fair to conclude that the Supreme Court is acutely aware of the case’s very high stakes for many newly-insured Americans, for the administration that championed the law, for applicable large employers, and for the insurance industry as a whole.

What that may mean is that, even if the Supreme Court upholds the ACA challenge, and prohibits premium tax credits from being awarded in non-exchange states, it may rule in such a way that protects stakeholders from the immediate withdrawal of premium tax credits.   Here are a few of the possible ways the decision could fall:

  • Majority Verdict for the Government: if Justice Kennedy or Chief Justice Roberts cast their vote for the government, the resulting decision will preserve the “status quo” under the Affordable Care Act as we know it. Healthcare.gov will continue to award premium tax credits in the non-exchange states and individual insurance markets in those states will remain intact. This outcome would make it harder for any alternatives to the ACA, which the Republican-controlled Congress is already proposing, to gain traction and succeed.
  • Majority Verdict for the Challengers: If Justice Kennedy or Chief Justice Roberts sides with the more conservative faction of the Court, the operation of healthcare.gov in 34 states would grind to a halt and individual insurance markets in those states would soon become dysfunctional. In the non-exchange states, it is possible that individuals and families who must drop their now-unaffordable health insurance coverage will assail Governors’ mansions and the offices of Republican lawmakers with demands that they restore access to coverage, including life-saving cancer treatments and the like. Because applicable large employers in the non-exchange states will not be subject to pay or play penalty taxes, they may drop coverage they had only recently extended to employees working 30 or more hours per week. It is also possible that there will be business flight to the non-exchange states, for this reason. At the same time, non-exchange state residents may try to relocate in states that have their own exchanges, in order to receive subsidies. In essence, jobs and workers to fill them would be propelled in opposite directions.
  • A Possible Third Way: Justice Alito, who almost certainly will vote for the ACA’s challengers, raised the possibility in oral argument of a verdict for the challengers, but one whose effect is delayed by a year in order to give non-exchange states time to develop an alternative to healthcare.gov.   As this would be a voluntary process, it runs the risk that no alternative measures would be available in some states whose Governors and other elected representatives firmly oppose the ACA. Even in states that were willing to find alternatives, one year may not be enough time in which to do so. Supporters of the ACA would view this outcome as preferable, however, to a ruling for challengers that takes effect immediately. It is also possible that the justices could rule in favor of the challengers but interpret “state exchange” to include federal-state partnership exchanges, several of which already exist, and more of which are in the works already. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s prior decision in NFIB v. Sebelius that Medicaid expansion was not something that the federal government could coerce the states into doing.

Legislative Resolutions to the Problem

In oral argument Justice Scalia asserted that Congress would take action to avert massive loss of coverage leading to a death spiral of the individual insurance market in non-exchange states.  Arguing for the government, the Solicitor General’s comment was to pause and ask “this Congress…..? to wide laughter in the courtroom.  And in fact, were Congress not so deeply divided over the ACA a simple legislative amendment would have resolve the supposed “drafting error” at the heart of King v. Burwell.

However, it is not at all impossible that members of Congress would view a Supreme Court decision for ACA challengers as a prime opportunity to gain political ground with voters by “rescuing” their health insurance, and access to subsidies, through legislation.  In fact, some legislative proposals are already being drafted and considered in Congress, however only by traditionally anti-ACA factions.   The official word from the Department of HHS is that it has no ready fix or alternative to shutting down healthcare.gov (but it is likely that the administration is considering workarounds nonetheless.  While all eyes are on the Court and its likely late-June decision, those with political ground to gain will not be standing idle.

[1] The IRS postponed employer shared responsibility duties from 2014 to 2015 in Notice 2013-45.  Under separate transition relief, generally only employers with 100 or more full-time employees (including full-time equivalents) in 2014 must offer coverage or pay the penalty for 2015, but all applicable large employers must do so in 2016 and subsequent.  The transition relief is explained in Q&A 34 of this IRS FAQ.

 

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, PPACA, State Exchange

Updated SBC Rules Reflect Full ACA Implementation

As 2014 came to a close, the federal agencies charged with ACA implementation (the Treasury, Labor & Health and Human Services Departments) published proposed regulations governing the contents and delivery of Summaries of Benefits and Coverage or “SBCs,” and made corresponding changes to the SBC template, and related glossary of medical and insurance terms.   The proposed regulations, if finalized, would apply to SBCs required to be provided for open enrollment periods beginning on or after September 1, 2015, and as of the first day of the plan year beginning on or after September 1, 2015 (January 1, 2016 for calendar year plans) for other SBD disclosures (such as for special enrollments).   With the proposed regulations the agencies also released updated SBC templates (blank, and completed), and an updated uniform of key medical and insurance terms.  If finalized, the proposed regulations would amend final SBC regulations published on February 14, 2012.

SBC Update:  Contents

In essence, the proposed regulations refresh SBC contents and terminology to reflect full ACA implementation, in particular its group market reforms and the rollout, over 2014 – 2016, of both individual and employer shared responsibility regimes.   Prior to the proposed regulations, these upgrades occurred piecemeal, in the form of Frequently Asked Questions, no fewer than six of which addressed SBC issues since the final regulations were published.  (See ACA Implementation FAQs Parts VII, VIII, IX, X, XIV and XIV, located here.)  The proposed regulations helpfully consolidate all that earlier guidance and make additional changes consistent with the post-ACA coverage landscape.  With particular regard to SBCs provided to participants and beneficiaries for group health coverage (insured, or self-insured) they include the following:

  • The mandated contents of the SBC template are reduced from 4 double-sided pages to only 2 ½ double-sided pages, freeing up 1 ½ pages for voluntary disclosures such as premium costs, if practical for the coverage arrangement, or additional “coverage examples,” as described below.   There is no requirement that the extra space be filled so long as all required template disclosures are made.
  • The extra space is gained in part by removing references to annual limits on essential health benefits and pre-existing condition exclusions, which are now obsolete.
  • Added to the SBC template is a third “coverage example” which is a hypothetical walk-through of likely covered and out-of-pocket expenses an individual would experience under the benefit package or plan for specific health issues. The new coverage example is a simple foot fracture with emergency room visit.
  • The SBC template also updates pricing data for the other two coverage examples, which are normal delivery of a baby, and well-regulated Type 2 diabetes. As mentioned, carriers and self-insured plan sponsors could add additional coverage examples so long as they remain within the maximum length of 4 double-sided pages (with at least a 12 point font).
  • Added to the uniform glossary are definitions for the following medical terms: “claim,” “screening,” “referral,” “specialty drug” as well as ACA terms such as “individual responsibility requirement,” “minimum value,” and “cost-sharing reductions.” These additions increase glossary page length from 4 to 6.
  • For insured or HMO coverage, the SBC must provide a web address at which individuals can view actual insurance policies, certificates, or HMO contracts related to the SBCs. (A sample certificate for group coverage may be posted while the terms of the actual certificate are under negotiation.) Existing regulations require web addresses for lists of in-network medical providers and drug formularies as well as the uniform glossary of insurance and medical terms.
  • The proposed regulations require that the SBC state whether or not the benefit package qualifies as “minimum essential coverage” or “MEC,” or whether or not it provided at least “minimum value”; these were not required by the 2012 final regulations, but were later added for coverage effective on or after January 1, 2014.
    • Note: Although this information was somewhat esoteric in 2012 and 2013, it has now become essential for most employees to complete their income tax returns for 2014. The MEC disclosure is needed to demonstrate they met individual mandate duties first in effect last year, and the minimum value disclosure is needed in relation to advance payment of premium tax credits. This tax season is the first time that individuals who received tax credits must reconcile them against actual household income, through use of the very complicated IRS Form 8962.  Compliance with the individual mandate is also required to be demonstrated on Form 1040, at line 61, or through reporting of an exemption from the mandate via Form 8965.

SBC Update:  Delivery

The proposed regulations are intended to streamline SBC delivery rules and prevent duplicate delivery of SBCs in certain situations:

  • When an insurer/HMO (“issuer”) or self-funded plan provides an SBC upon request to someone before they have applied for coverage, it need not re-supply one upon actual application for coverage unless the SBC contents have changed in the meantime (or if the person applies for a different benefit package).
  • When a plan sponsor provides an SBC to an applicant during negotiation of terms of coverage, and the terms of coverage change, the sponsor need not provide an updated SBC until the first day of coverage (unless separately requested).
  • A group health plan that uses two or more benefit packages, such as major medical coverage and a health flexible spending account, may synthesize the information into a single SBC, or provide multiple SBCs.
  • The rule permitting a plan sponsor or issuer, upon renewal or reissuance, to provide a new SBC only with respect to the benefit package that is being renewed or reissued is extended to apply to cases in which a plan or issuer automatically reenrolls participants and beneficiaries.
  • Where a plan sponsor or carrier required to provide an SBC with respect to an individual (“original provider”) enters into a binding contract with a third party (“contracted provider”) to provide the SBC to the individual, the original provider will be considered to have met their SBC delivery duties if all of the following requirements are met:
    • The original provider monitors the contracted provider’s performance under the contract;
    • The original provider corrects noncompliance by the contract provider under the SBC delivery contract as soon as practicable, if it has knowledge of the noncompliance and has all information necessary to correct the noncompliance; and
    • The original provider communicates with participants and beneficiaries about noncompliance of which it becomes aware, but which it is unable to correct, and takes significant steps as soon as practicable to avoid future violations.
  • In instances where an insured group health plan uses two or more insurance products provided by separate issuers to insure benefits under the plan, the plan administrator will be responsible for providing complete SBCs but may contract with one of the carriers or another service provider to provide the SBC; absent such an agreement one carrier has no obligation to provide SBCs describing benefits provided by the other carrier. (It remains permissible under prior FAQ guidance to also provide several separate partial SBCs under cover of a letter or notation on the partial SBCs explaining their interrelation.)
  • The proposed rules also incorporate prior FAQ guidance that “providing” an SBC means “sending” an SBC, and an SBC is timely provided if it is sent within seven business days of request, even if it is not received within that time period. This same timing rule applies to requests to receive copies of the uniform glossary. Provisions in the final regulations on electronic delivery of the SBCs continue to apply.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, Individual Shared Responsibility, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties, PPACA, State Exchange, Summaries of Benefits and Coverage