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Recipients of these letters may disagree with all or part of the proposed assessment amount. In many cases, there is good reason to disagree, since the IRS is evaluating compliance based on ACA reporting Forms 1094-C and 1095-C from 2015 — the first year for these filings, when confusion was common. Therefore, providing the IRS with updated information or correcting filing errors is likely to reduce or even eliminate the assessment.
It appears that 2015 proposed assessment letters will continue during 2018, and that employers will be notified of 2016 proposed assessments either later in 2018 or in 2019 (absent legislative relief or a legal challenge to the employer mandate).
ALEs started reporting compliance information from 2015 to the IRS on Forms 1094-C and 1095-C in early 2016. An ALE may receive an IRS assessment letter for the following reasons:
Letter 226-J states the proposed penalty (with accompanying calculations) and a list of employees who received a premium tax credit by month. The letter also indicates whether the proposed assessment is for an “a” or “b” penalty (so far, most are “a” penalties). The “a” penalty relates to whether the employer offered health coverage to substantially all (70% in 2015, 95% after that) full-time employees (and dependents), while the “b” penalty relates to whether the coverage offered met the minimum value requirements and was affordable. Recent 226-J letters have proposed penalties in the following situations:
First, any company that consists of more than one ALE will want to direct the Letter 226-J to the correct ALE so it can respond promptly. The most likely cause of incorrect assessments is errors in Forms 1094-C and 1095-C, as these are the forms the IRS uses to determine compliance with the employer mandate. The following are some suggestions for responding to these letters and avoiding assessments, now and in the future:
ALEs that discover an error after receiving Letter 226-J should not re-file the forms and should respond to the letter in one of two ways: pay the proposed penalty or disagree with all or part of the proposed assessment following IRS procedures.
ALEs that respond to the IRS will receive Letter 227, which acknowledges receipt of the ESRP Response form and describes any next steps for the ALE. An ALE that disagrees with the IRS’s proposed or revised assessment may request a pre-assessment conference with the IRS Office of Appeals by the response date on Letter 227 (generally 30 days from the date of the letter).
Failing to respond to Letter 226-J within 30 days will trigger a Notice and Demand for Payment (Notice CP 220J). After that, the penalty amount will be subject to IRS lien and levy enforcement actions, and interest will start to accrue.
ALEs (or their ACA reporting vendors) need to be careful in filing Forms 1094-C and 1095-C in the future. Assuming the employer mandate requirements are met, completing the forms correctly the first time should ensure that ALEs do not receive Letter 226-J. ALEs that receive a proposed assessment letter should consult with qualified legal counsel to evaluate the assessment and respond appropriately. Additional information is available at the IRS’s Letter 226-J Website.
ALEs that discover filing errors in their 2016 or 2017 filings of Forms 1094-C and 1095-C should obtain copies of the erroneous forms and re-file corrected forms as soon as possible (re-filing is generally permissible before a Letter 226-J is received). Self-correction is the best way to stay ahead of these issues before the IRS gets involved.
Many employers offer affordable health coverage that meets or exceeds the minimum value requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, if one or more of their full-time employees claims the coverage offered was not affordable, minimum value health coverage, the employee could (erroneously) get subsidized coverage on the public health exchange. This would cause problems for applicable large employers (ALEs), who potentially face employer shared responsibility penalties, and for employees, which may have to repay erroneous subsidies.
If an employee does receive subsidized coverage on the public exchange, most employers would want to know about it as soon as possible and appeal the subsidy decision if they believed they were offering affordable, minimum value coverage. There are two ways employers might be notified: (1) by the federally facilitated or state-based exchange or (2) by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Employer notices from exchanges
The notices from the exchanges are intended to
be an early-warning system to employers. Ideally, the exchange would notify
employers when an employee receives an advance premium tax credit (APTC) subsidizing
coverage. The notice would occur shortly after the employee started receiving
subsidized coverage, and employers would have a chance to rectify the situation
before the tax year ends.
In a set of Frequently Asked Questions issued September 18, 2015, the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) stated the federal exchanges will not notify employers about 2015 APTCs and will instead begin notifying some employers in 2016 about employees’ 2016 APTCs. The federal exchange employer notification program will not be fully implemented until sometime after 2016.
In 2016, the federal exchanges will only send APTC notices to some employers and will use the employer address given to the exchange by the employee at the time of application for insurance on the exchange. CCIIO realizes some employer notices will probably not reach their intended recipients. Going forward, the public exchanges will consider alternative ways of contacting employers.
Employers that do receive the notice have 90 days after receipt to send an appeal to the health insurance exchange.
Employers that do not receive early notice from the exchanges will not be able to address potential errors until after the tax year is over, when the IRS gets involved.
Employer notices from IRS
The IRS, which is responsible for assessing and
collecting shared responsibility payments from employers, will start notifying
employers in 2016 if they are potentially subject to shared responsibility
penalties for 2015. Likewise, the IRS will notify employers in 2017 of
potential penalties for 2016, after their employees’ individual tax returns
have been processed. Employers will have an opportunity to respond to the IRS
before the IRS actually assesses any ACA shared responsibility penalties.
Regarding assessment and collection of the employer shared responsibility payment, the IRS states on its website:
An employer will not be contacted by the IRS regarding an employer shared responsibility payment until after their employees’ individual income tax returns are due for that year—which would show any claims for the premium tax credit.
If, after the employer has had an opportunity to respond to the initial IRS contact, the IRS determines that an employer is liable for a payment, the IRS will send a notice and demand for payment to the employer. That notice will instruct the employer how to make the payment.
For 2015, and quite possibly for 2016 and future years, the
soonest an employer will hear it has an employee who received a subsidy on the
federal exchange will be when the IRS notifies the employer that the employer
is potentially liable for a shared responsibility payment for the prior year.
The employer will have an opportunity to respond to the IRS before any
assessment or notice and demand for payment is made. The “early-warning system”
of public exchanges notifying employers of employees’ APTCs in the year in
which they receive them is not yet fully operational.
Starting in 2015, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires applicable large employers to offer affordable, minimum value health coverage to their full time employees (and dependents) or pay a penalty. The employer penalty rules are also known as the employer mandate or the “pay or play” rules.
Effective in 2014, affordability of health coverage is used to determine whether an individual is:
On July 24, 2014, the IRS released Revenue Procedure 2014-37 to index the ACA’s affordability percentages for 2015.
For plan years beginning in 2015, an applicable large employer’s health coverage will be considered affordable under the pay or play rules if the employee’s requires contribution to the plan does not exceed 9.56 percent of the employee’s household income for the year. The current affordability percentage for 2014 is 9.5 percent.
Applicable large employers can use one of the IRS’ affordability safe harbors to determine whether their health plans will satisfy the 9.56 percent requirement for 2015 plan years, if requirements for the applicable safe harbor are met.
This adjusted affordability percentage will also be used to determine whether an individual is eligible for a premium tax credit for 2015. Individuals who are eligible for employer-sponsored coverage that is affordable and provides minimum value are not eligible for a premium tax credit in the Exchange.
Also, Revenue Procedure 2014-37 adjusts the affordability percentage for the exemption from the individual mandate for individuals who lack access to affordable minimum essential coverage. For plan years beginning in 2015, coverage is unaffordable for purposes of the individual mandate if it exceeds 8.05 percent of household income.
The pay or play rules apply only to applicable large employers. An “applicable large employer” is an employer with, on average, at least 50 full-time employees (including full-time equivalents) during the preceding calendar year. Many applicable large employers will be subject to the pay or play rules starting in 2015. However, applicable large employers with fewer than 100 full-time employees may qualify for an additional year, until 2016, to comply with the employer mandate.
The affordability of health coverage is a key point in determining whether an applicable large employers will be subject to a penalty.
For 2014, the ACA provides that an employer’s health coverage is considered affordable if the employee’s required contribution to the plan does not exceed 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income for the taxable year. The ACA provides that, for plan year beginning after 2014, the IRS must adjust the affordability percentage to reflect the excess of the rate of premium growth over the rate of income growth for the preceding calendar year.
As noted above, the IRS has adjusted the affordability percentage for plan years beginning in 2015 to 9.56 percent. The affordability text applies only to the portion of the annual premiums for self-only coverage and does not include any additional cost for family coverage. Also, if an employer offers multiple health coverage options, the affordability test applies to the lowest-cost option that also satisfies the minimum value requirement.
Affordability Safe Harbors
Because an employer generally will not know an employee’s household income, the IRS created three affordability safe harbors that employers may use to determine affordability based on information that is available to them.
The affordability safe harbors are all optional. An employer may choose to use one or more of the affordability safe harbors for all its employees or for any reasonable category of employees, provided it does so on a uniform and consistent basis for all employees in a category.
The affordability safe harbors are:
Beginning in 2014, the ACA requires most individuals to obtain acceptable health insurance coverage for themselves and their family members or pay a penalty. This rule is often referred to as the “individual mandate”. Individual may be eligible for an exemption from the penalty in certain circumstances.
Under the ACA, individuals who lack access to affordable minimum essential coverage are exempt from the individual mandate. For purposes of this exemption, coverage is considered affordable for an employee in 2014 if the required contribution for the lowest-cost, self-only coverage does not exceed 8 percent of household income. For family members, coverage is considered affordable in 2014 if the required contribution for the lowest-cost family coverage does not exceed 8 percent of household income. This percentage will be adjusted annually after 2014.
For plan years beginning in 2015, the IRS has increased this percentage from 8 percent to 8.05 percent.
Can corporations shift targeted workers who have known high medical costs from the company health plan to public exchange (aka Marketplace/SHOP) based coverage created by the Affordable Care Act? Some employers are beginning to inquire about it and some consultants are advocating for it.
Health spending is driven largely by those patients with chronic illness, such as diabetes, or those who undergo expensive procedures such as an organ transplant. Since a large majority of big corporations are self-insured and many more smaller employers are beginning to research this as an option to help control their medical premiums, shifting even one high-cost member out of the company health plan could potentially save the employer hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by shifting the cost for the high-cost member claims to the Marketplace/SHOP plan(s).
It is unclear if the health law prohibits this type of action, which opens a door to the potential deterioration of employer-based medical coverage.
An employer “dumping strategy” can help promote the interests of both employers and employees by shifting health care expenses on to the public through the Marketplace.
It’s unclear how many companies, if any, have moved any of their sicker workers to exchange coverage yet, which just became available January 1, 2014, but even a few high-risk patients could add millions of dollars in claim costs to those Marketplace plans. The costs could be passed on to customers in the next year or two in the form of higher premiums and to taxpayers in the form of higher subsidy expenses.
A Possible Scenario
Here’s an example of how an employer “dumping-situation” it might work:
At renewal, an employer reduces the hospital/doctor network on their medical plan to make the company health plan unattractive to those with chronic illness or high cost medical claims. Or, the employer could raise the co-payments for drugs or physician visits needed by the chronically ill, also making the health plan unattractive and perhaps nudging high-cost workers to examine other options available to them.
At the same time, the employer offers to buy the targeted worker a high-benefit “platinum” plan in the Marketplace. The Marketplace/SHOP plan could cost $6,000 or more a year for an individual in premiums, but that’s still far less than the $300,000 a year in claim costs that a hemophilia patient might cost the company.
The employer could also give the worker a raise so they could buy the Marketplace/SHOP policy directly.
In the end, the employer saves money and the employee gets better coverage. And the Affordable Care Act marketplace plan, which is required to accept all applicants at a fixed price during open enrollment periods, takes over the costs for their chronic illness/condition.
Some consultants feel the concept sounds too easy to be true, but the ACA has set up the ability for employers and employees to voluntarily choose a better plan in the Individual Marketplace which could help save a significant amount of money for both.
Legal but ‘Gray’
The consensus among insurance and HR professionals is that even though the employer “dumping-strategy” is technically legal to date (as long as employees agree to the change and are not forced off the company medical plan), the action is still very gray. This is why many employers have decided this is not something they want to promote at this time.
Shifting high-risk workers out of employer medical plans is prohibited for other kinds of taxpayer-supported insurance. For example, it’s illegal to persuade an employee who is working and over 65 to drop company coverage and rely entirely on the government Medicare program. Similarly, employers who dumped high-cost patients into temporary high-risk pools established originally by the ACA health law are required to repay those workers’ claims back to the pools.
One would think there would be a similar type of provision under the Affordable Care Act for plans sold through the Marketplace portals, but there currently is not.
The act of moving high-cost workers to a Marketplace plan would not trigger penalties under ACA as long as an employer offers an affordable medical plan to all eligible employees that meets the requirements of minimum essential coverage, experts said. If workers are offered a medical plan by their employer that is affordable coverage and meets the minimum essential coverage requirements, workers cannot use tax credits to help pay for the Marketplace-plan premiums.
Many benefits experts say they are unaware of specific instances where employers are shifting high-cost workers to exchange plans and the spokespeople for AIDS United and the Hemophilia Federation of America, both advocating for patients with expensive, chronic conditions, said they didn’t know of any, either.
But employers are becoming increasingly interested in this option.
This practice, however, could raise concerns about discrimination and could cause decreased employee morale and even resentment among employees who are not offered a similar deal, which could end up causing the employer more headaches and even potential discrimination lawsuits.
Many believe that even though this strategy is currently an option for employers, in the end, it may not be a good idea. This type of strategy has to operate as an under-the-radar deal between the employer and targeted employee and these type of deals never work out. Most legal experts who focus on employee benefits do not recommend this strategy either as it just opens the door of discrimination claims from employees.
Please contact our office for assistance in reviewing all of the benefit options available to your company and employees under ACA.