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Even small employers notsubject to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) coverage mandate can’t reimburse employees for nongroup health insurance coverage purchased on a public exchange, the Internal Revenue Service confirmed. But small employers providing premium reimbursement in 2014 are being offered transition relief through mid-2015.
IRS Notice 2015-17, issued on Feb. 18, 2015, is another in a series of guidance from the IRS reminding employers that they will run afoul of the ACA if they use health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) or other employer payment plans—whether with pretax or post-tax dollars—to reimburse employees for individual policy premiums, including policies available on ACA federal or state public exchanges.
This time the warning is aimed at small employers—those with fewer than 50 full-time employees or equivalent workers. While small organizations are not subject to the ACA’s “shared responsibility” employer mandate to provide coverage or pay a penalty (aka Pay or Play), if they do provide health coverage it must meet a range of ACA coverage requirements.
“The agencies have taken the position that employer payment plans are group health plans, and thus must comply with the ACA’s market reforms,” noted Timothy Jost, J.D., a professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, in a Feb. 19 post on the Health Affairs Blog. “A group health plan must under these reforms cover at least preventive care and may not have annual dollar limits. A premium payment-only HRA or other payment arrangement that simply pays employee premiums does not comply with these requirements. An employer that offers such an arrangement, therefore, is subject to a fine of $100 per employee per day. (An HRA integrated into a group health plan that, for example, helps with covering cost-sharing is not a problem).”
The notice provides transition relief for small employers that used premium payment arrangements for 2014. Small employers also will not be subject to penalties for providing payment arrangements for Jan. 1 through June 30, 2015. These employers must end their premium reimbursement plans by that time. This relief does not extend to stand-alone HRAs or other arrangements used to reimburse employees for medical expenses other than insurance premiums.
No similar relief was given for large employers (those with 50 or more full-time employees or equivalents) for the $100 per day per employee penalties. Large employers are required to self-report their violation on the IRS’s excise tax form 8928 with their quarterly filings.
“Notice 2015-17 recognizes that impermissible premium-reimbursement arrangements have been relatively common, particularly in the small-employer market,” states a benefits brief from law firm Spencer Fane. “And although the ACA created “SHOP Marketplaces” as a place for small employers to purchase affordable [group] health insurance, the notice concedes that the SHOPs have been slow to get off the ground. Hence, this transition relief.”
Subchapter S Corps.
The notice states that Subchapter S closely held corporations may pay for or reimburse individual plan premiums for employee-shareholders who own at least 2 percent of the corporation. “In this situation, the payment is included in income, but the 2-percent shareholder can deduct the premiums for tax purposes,” Jost explained. The 2-percent shareholder may also be eligible for premium tax credits through the marketplace SHOP Marketplace if he or she meets other eligibility requirements.
Employers can pay for some or all of the expenses of employees covered by Tricare—a Department of Defense program that provides civilian health benefits for military personnel (including some members of the reserves), military retirees and their dependents—if the payment plan is integrated with a group health plan that meets ACA coverage requirements.
Higher Pay Is Still OK
One option that the IRS will allow employers is to simply increase an employee’s taxable wages in lieu of offering health insurance. “As long as the money is not specifically designated for premiums, this would not be a premium payment plan,” said Jost. “The employer could even give the employee general information about the marketplace and the availability of premium tax credits as long as it does not direct the employee to a specific plan.”
But if the employer pays or reimburses premiums specifically, “even if the payments are made on an after-tax basis, the arrangement is a noncompliant group health plan and the employer that offers it is subject to the $100 per day per employee penalty,” Jost warned.
“Small employers now have just over four months in which to wind down any impermissible premium-reimbursement arrangement,” the Spencer Fane brief notes. “In its place, they may wish to adopt a plan through a SHOP Marketplace. Although individuals may enroll through a Marketplace during only annual or special enrollment periods, there is no such limitation on an employer’s ability to adopt a plan through a SHOP.”