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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) established Health Insurance Marketplaces (also called Exchanges) where individuals can shop and enroll in health coverage. Individuals who meet certain criteria are eligible for premium subsidies and cost-sharing reductions for coverage on the Marketplace.
For the first time, in 2016 some employers will receive a notice from a Marketplace indicating that one of their employees signed up for health coverage through the Marketplace and received advanced premium subsidies. Many employers are asking what these notices mean and what actions they should take if they receive one.
Premium subsidies and cost-sharing reductions are designed to expand healthcare coverage by making insurance, and its utilization, more affordable. Premium subsidies, more accurately referred to as a premium tax credit, are claimed on an individual’s income tax return at the end of the year. What is unique about this tax credit is that an individual can choose to have the expected premium tax credit advanced throughout the year, in which case the government makes payments directly to the health insurer on the individual’s behalf. Importantly, individuals who have access to health coverage through an employer that is affordable and meets minimum value are not eligible to receive the premium tax credit or advances of the premium tax credit for their coverage.
The ACA generally requires that applicable large employers – generally employers with 50 or more full-time employees, including full-time equivalents – offer health coverage that is affordable and of minimum value to their full-time employees (and their dependents) or face an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax. This is often referred to as the employer “pay or play” or employer mandate provision. Tax liability under this employer provision is triggered if one of the employer’s full-time employees receives a premium tax credit and the amount of the tax liability is determined by the number of full-time employees who received the premium tax credit.
During the Marketplace application process, individuals are asked a host of questions, including questions about access to health coverage through an employer. If the Marketplace determines that the individual does not have access through an employer to coverage that is affordable and meets the required minimum value, and assuming the individual meets other eligibility criteria, advance payments of the premium tax credit can begin.
In such an instance, the Marketplace is required to send the employer a Marketplace notice. This will be the first year the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) is sending out these notices. It is worth noting that there is not a commitment to send a notice to all employers, and the FFM has said it can send a notice only if the individual provides a complete employer address. Consequently, some employers expecting Marketplace notices may not receive them and notices may not be mailed to the preferred employer address.
The Marketplace notices will give employers advance warning that they may have potential tax liability under the employer mandate of the ACA. However, there are reasons that receiving a notice does not necessarily mean the IRS will be in hot pursuit, including:
The FFM recently posted a sample of its 2016 notice which can be found here.
Please note that the notice suggests that employers should call the IRS for more information if they have questions, however, IRS telephone assistors will be unable to provide information on the Marketplace process, including the appeals process, and will be unable to tell an employer whether they owe a tax under the employer mandate.
An employer who receives a Marketplace notice may want to appeal the decision that the individual was not offered employer coverage that was affordable and of minimum value. An employer has 90 days from the date of the notice to file an appeal, which is made directly to the Marketplace. Importantly, the IRS will independently determine whether an employer has a tax liability, and the employer will have the opportunity to dispute any proposed liability with the IRS. Similarly, an individual will have the opportunity to challenge an IRS denial of premium tax credit eligibility. Any contact by the IRS, however, will occur late in the game after the year’s tax liabilities have already been incurred. Therefore, although an appeal is not required, it may be advisable.
Regardless of whether an employer pursues an appeal, an employer, particularly one that offers affordable, minimum value health coverage, should communicate to its employees about its offering. Although an applicable large employer is required to furnish IRS Form 1095-C to full-time employees detailing the employer’s offer, a better option is providing employees with information before they enroll in Marketplace coverage.
In summary, the Marketplace notice serves as an advance warning that either the employer or the employee may have a tax liability. Given this exposure, employers should review Marketplace notices and their internal records and consider taking action.
In a first-of-its-kind decision, a federal court recently upheld the right of employees to sue their employer for allegedly cutting employee hours to less than 30 hours per week to avoid offering health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Specifically, the District Court for the Southern District of New York denied a defense Motion to Dismiss in a case where a group of workers allege that Dave & Buster’s (a national restaurant and entertainment chain) “right-sized” its workforce for the purpose of avoiding healthcare costs.
Although this case is in the very early stages of litigation and is far from being decided, you should monitor this for developments to determine whether you need to take action to deter potential copycat lawsuits.
One of the initial concerns by ACA critics is that many employers would respond to the Employer Mandate by reducing full-time employee hours to avoid the coverage obligation and associated penalties, increasing the number of part-time workers in the national economy. This is because the ACA does not require an employer to offer affordable, minimum-value coverage to employees generally working less than 30 hours per week.
Although the initial economic data analyzing the national workforce suggests that the predictions of wide-scale reduction in employee hours have not materialized, some employers have increased their reliance on part-time employees as an ACA strategy to manage the costs of the Employer Mandate.
Section 510 of ERISA prohibits discrimination and retaliation against plan participants and beneficiaries with respect to their rights to benefits. More specifically, ERISA Section 510 prohibits employers from interfering “with the attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the plan.” Because many employment decisions affect the right to present or future benefits, courts generally require that plaintiffs show specific employer intent to interfere with benefits if they want to successfully assert a cause of action under ERISA Section 510.
The court found that the class of plaintiffs showed sufficient evidence in support of their claim that their participation in the health insurance plan was discontinued because the employer acted with “unlawful purpose” in realigning its workforce to avoid ACA-related costs. In this regard, the employees claimed that the company held meetings during which managers explained that the ACA would cost millions of dollars, and that employee hours were being reduced to avoid that cost.
However, if you are considering reducing your employee hours, you should carefully consider how such reductions are communicated to your workforce. Employers often have varied reasons for reducing employee hours, and many of those reasons have legitimate business purposes. It is vital that any communications made to your employees about such reductions describe the underlying rationale with clarity.
Beginning in Spring 2016, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Exchanges/Marketplaces will begin to send notices to employers whose employees have received government-subsidized health insurance through the Exchanges. The ACA created the “Employer Notice Program” to give employers the opportunity to contest a potential penalty for employees receiving subsidized health insurance via an Exchange.
The notices will identify any employees who received an advance premium tax credit (APTC). If a full-time employee of an applicable large employer (ALE) receives a premium tax credit for coverage through the Exchanges in 2016, the ALE will be liable for the employer shared responsibility payment. The penalty if an employer doesn’t offer full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) affordable minimum value essential coverage is $2,160 per FTE (minus the first 30) in 2016. If an employer offers coverage, but it is not considered affordable, the penalty is the lesser of $3,240 per subsidized FTE in 2016 or the above penalty. Penalties for future years will be indexed for inflation and posted on the IRS website. The Employer Notice Program does provide an opportunity for an ALE to file an appeal if employees claimed subsidies they were not entitled to.
The first batch of notices will be sent in Spring 2016 and additional notices will be sent throughout the year. For 2016, the notices are expected to be sent to employers if the employee received an APTC for at least one month in 2016 and the employee provided the Exchange with the complete employer address.
Last September, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued FAQs regarding the Employer Notice Program. The FAQs respond to several questions regarding how employers should respond if they receive a notice that an employee received premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions through the ACA’s Exchanges.
Employers will have an opportunity to appeal the employer notice by proving they offered the employee access to affordable minimum value employer-sponsored coverage, therefore making the employee ineligible for APTC. An employer has 90 days from the date of the notice to appeal. If the employer’s appeal is successful, the Exchange will send a notice to the employee suggesting the employee update their Exchange application to reflect that he or she has access or is enrolled in other coverage. The notice to the employee will further explain that failure to provide an update to their application may result in a tax liability.
Although CMS has provided these guidelines to apply only to the Federal Exchange, it is likely that the state-based Exchanges will have similar notification programs.
Employers should prepare in advance by developing a process for handling the Exchange notices, including appealing any incorrect information that an employee may have provided to the Exchange. Advance preparation will enable you to respond to the notice promptly and help to avoid potential employer penalties.