Page 1 of 3
On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued eagerly anticipated guidance on administering COBRA subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The guidance includes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and various Model Notices and election forms implementing the COBRA Premium Assistance provisions under ARPA, while also announcing the launch of a page dedicated to COBRA Premium Subsidy guidance on its website.
Since ARPA was enacted, employers have been preparing to comply, albeit with many open questions. ARPA requires that full COBRA premiums be subsidized for “Assistance Eligible Individuals” for periods of coverage between April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. While this guidance answers important questions on the administration of the subsidies, it does not address many other details on the minds of employers. For example, this guidance does not cover important nuances such as what is an “involuntary termination” in order to qualify for subsidized coverage, how existing separation agreement commitments to subsidize COBRA should be viewed, or details on how the corresponding payroll tax credit will work.
The FAQs are largely directed to individuals and focus on how to obtain the subsidy and how subsidized coverage fits with other types of health coverage that may be available, including Marketplace, Medicaid, and individual plan coverage. We hope that employer directed guidance will follow to fill in the gaps.
Employers will be happy to know that the FAQs confirm a few points that will impact administration. First, eligibility for coverage under another group health plan, including that of a spouse’s employer, will disqualify the employee from the subsidy. Employees must certify on election forms that they are not eligible for such coverage and will notify the employer if they subsequently become eligible for coverage (individual coverage, such as through the Marketplace or Medicaid, will not disqualify an otherwise eligible individual from subsidized COBRA). Failure to do so will subject the individual to a tax penalty of $250, or if the failure is fraudulent, the greater of $250 or 110% of the premium subsidy. The availability of other coverage (which the employer may not know about) does not impact the employer’s initial obligation to identify potential Assistance Eligible Individuals and provide the required notices and election forms.
Soon after enactment, there were also questions circling about whether ARPA applied to small employer plans not subject to COBRA, but rather state “mini-COBRA” laws. The FAQs confirm that the subsidy also applies to any continuation coverage required under state mini-COBRA laws but also notes that ARPA does not change time periods for elections under State law. Further guidance would be welcome on obligations related to small insured plans. The FAQs also confirm that plans sponsored by State or local governments subject to similar continuation requirements under the Public Health Service Act are covered by the ARPA subsidies.
One area that has caused great confusion is how the right to retroactively elect COBRA coverage (to the date active coverage was lost) due to the DOL’s extended deadlines fits with this new election right. While there is more to come on this, the DOL helpfully confirmed that these are two separate rights and thankfully, the FAQs note that the extended deadlines do not apply to the 60-day notice or election periods related to the ARPA subsidies.
The most significant part of the guidance (that we knew was coming but are still happy to see sooner rather than later) are the Model Notices and election materials. The guidance package confirms that employers have until May 31, 2021, to provide the notices of the opportunity to elect subsidized coverage and individuals have 60 days following the date that notice is provided to elect subsidized coverage. Individuals can begin subsidized coverage on the date of their election, or April 1, 2021, as long as the involuntary termination or reduction in hours supporting the election right occurred before April 1, 2021. As previously noted, in no way do these timeframes extend the otherwise applicable 18-month COBRA period.
The Notices include an ARPA General Notice and COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice, to be provided to all individuals who will lose coverage due to any COBRA qualifying event between April 1 and September 30, 2021, and a separate Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods, to be provided to anyone who may be eligible for the subsidy due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours occurring before April 1, 2021 (i.e., generally involuntary terminations or reductions in hours occurring on or after October 1, 2019).
Plans will also have to provide individuals with a Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance 15-45 days before the expiration of the subsidy — essentially explaining that subsidies will soon expire, the ability to continue unsubsidized COBRA for any period remaining under the original 18-month coverage period and describing the coverage opportunities available through other avenues such as the Marketplace or Medicaid. Employers are highly encouraged to use the DOL’s model notices without customization except where required to insert plan or employer specific information.
With the release of the model notices, employers and COBRA administrators now largely have the tools to administer this new election right. The FAQs remind us that the DOL will ensure ARPA benefits are received by eligible individuals and employers will face an excise tax for failing to comply, which can be as much as $100 per qualified beneficiary (no more than $200 per family) for each day the employer is in violation for the COBRA rules. Accordingly, employers will want to begin or continue conversations with COBRA administrators to ensure notices are timely provided to the right group of individuals.
One of Congress’s goals in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) was to provide enhanced unemployment benefits and continued healthcare coverage to employees who lose their jobs as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. The latter goal was achieved by the federal government agreeing to pick up the cost of such individuals’ COBRA coverage for up to six months beginning April 1, 2021. Individuals who voluntarily terminate their employment are not entitled to the COBRA subsidy.
Administering and communicating the new COBRA subsidy will pose challenges to employers. Here are the key features of the subsidy:
The subsidy automatically commences on April 1 for eligible individuals who are receiving COBRA coverage on that date. If a qualified beneficiary paid for COBRA coverage during the subsidy period, they must be reimbursed for such payment within 60 days after making the payment.
Employers, at their option, can elect to give qualified beneficiaries the opportunity to change their current coverage and choose different coverage as long as the cost of the new coverage does not exceed the cost of their current coverage. There is no requirement that employers provide this option to eligible individuals currently receiving COBRA coverage.
In contrast, employers must give former qualified beneficiaries who previously waived or dropped their COBRA rights but would be eligible for the subsidy if they had elected and maintained such coverage (i.e., those qualified beneficiaries who as of April 1, 2021, would still have time left in their original COBRA coverage period) the opportunity to take advantage of the subsidy. This will be an administrative challenge because it means employers will have to (i) identify such qualified beneficiaries, (ii) notify them of the availability of the subsidy, and (iii) provide a window for them to elect COBRA coverage. Unlike the current COBRA rules, which generally would require the coverage to commence retroactively to the date coverage was lost, this special election allows qualified beneficiaries to commence their coverage on April 1. The period for making this special election begins on April 1 and ends 60 days after the date the qualified beneficiary is provided the notification.
The COBRA subsidy ends before the expiration of the six-month period if the individual’s maximum COBRA coverage period ends earlier or the individual becomes eligible for other group health coverage or Medicare. Individuals receiving the COBRA subsidy must notify the plan administrator when they become eligible for other group health or Medicare coverage, and might be subject to penalties if they fail to do so. The ARPA does not explain whether eligibility for other coverage requires actual enrollment in, or mere eligibility to enroll in, other coverage.
The ARPA requires employers to update their current COBRA forms to explain the special subsidy rights and include other specified information. In addition to using the updated forms for those who become eligible for COBRA on or after April 1, the new forms have to be provided to qualified beneficiaries who became eligible for COBRA coverage before April 1 (assuming their original COBRA coverage period did not end before April 1). The Department of Labor (DOL) is required to provide model language for the election notice by April 10.
In addition, the ARPA creates a new notification requirement. Specifically, qualified beneficiaries who qualify for the subsidy must be provided a “Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance” that explains the date when their subsidy will end and certain other specified information. Generally, this new notice must be provided no more than 45 days before and no less than 15 days before the date the subsidy will end. The notice does not have to be provided to qualified beneficiaries whose subsidies end because their COBRA period ends. The DOL is required to provide a model notice for this requirement by April 25.
Penalties apply if these notices are not provided, so employers should be careful to ensure their notices are updated to include all of the required information and are distributed in a timely manner.
In sum, employers will have to develop a game plan for complying with the new COBRA subsidy. Challenges include identifying all of the eligible individuals who are entitled to the subsidy, updating COBRA forms, and providing timely notifications. Employers’ communication strategy also should take into account the extended election periods individuals have for electing COBRA coverage under prior DOL and Treasury guidance.
Many Applicable Large Employers (ALE’s) have already started received Letter 226J from the IRS that indicates their proposed assessment of a penalty under the Employer Shared Responsibility provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Letter 226J outlines several things for the ALE receiving it. The letter will tell the ALE what the proposed penalty assessment could be and will also state whether the assessment is based on an “A” or “B” Penalty. An “A” Penalty is assessed when at least one full-time employee is provided a premium tax credit when the employee obtains coverage in the healthcare marketplace exchange. An ALE may be subject to a “B” Penalty if employees decline substandard coverage (aka coverage offered is not affordable) offered by the ALE and then receive a tax credit when obtaining coverage from the marketplace exchange. The letter also provides a list to the ALE of the full-time employees that received a premium tax credit and therefore created the potential for a penalty under the ACA.
It is very important for ALE’s to respond to Letter 226J and do so in a timely manner. The IRS provides 30 days, from the date of issuance, for ALE’s to respond, and if no response is made by the ALE, the IRS will conclude the employer does not disagree with the proposed assessment. ALE’s should not assume that because they received a letter that they will owe a penalty or that the amount outlined in the letter is the amount they will ultimately pay to the IRS for non-compliance with the ACA. Additionally, if no response is made to the IRS, the IRS will demand payment by issuing notice CP 220J. Only once the notice and demand for payment is received is the ALE required to make the penalty payment. Letter 226J is not requesting any payment but is giving ALE’s the chance to respond/disagree with the decision initially made by the IRS & Marketplace.
Letter 226J clearly outlines instructions on how to respond to the letter if the ALE feels that it is not liable for the proposed penalty. ALE’s will complete Form 14764 responding to the IRS that it does not agree with the penalty determination. The ALE will provide the IRS with a signed statement explaining why it does not agree with the determination. Any supporting documentation should be provided to the IRS (for example, records indicating dates of termination of employees, proof that the ALE offered coverage to full-time employees) and any other information requested in Letter 226J. The ALE should also make any changes to the Employee Premium Tax Credit (PTC) Listing that was enclosed with Letter 226J. The Employee PTC Listing (Form 14765) will be included with Letter 226J and Form 14764 (ESRP Response). The Employee PTC Listing identifies each employee who received a PTC by month and also the line 14 and line 16 indicator codes that were provided on the employee’s 1095-C form. If the ALE provided the incorrect indicator codes on form 1095-C, the Employee PTC Listing provides a line for the ALE to correct the codes used.
Once the IRS receives the response to Letter 226J, it will acknowledge that it has received the response by sending the ALE a version of Letter 227. There are 5 versions of Letter 227, and the ALE will receive the appropriate version, acknowledging receipt of their response and an outline of any further action that may be required.
On Dec. 22, 2017, President Trump signed into law Congress’s tax reform legislation. The summary below addresses some of the changes that relate to compensation and employee benefits.
Individual shared responsibility – With respect to health care and employee benefits, the most important feature of the tax act is the elimination of the penalty on individual taxpayers who do not maintain minimum essential coverage. However, please note that this elimination of the penalty is prospective and only applies for months beginning after Dec. 31, 2018. Thus, the penalty remains fully in effect for 2018.
With the reduction in the penalty, some employers may see fewer employees enroll in health care coverage during their 2019 healthcare benefit open enrollment period. However, most employees will continue to view employers that offer health insurance coverage more favorably than those who do not. Therefore, offering health insurance will remain a valuable and tax-efficient recruiting and retention tool.
This may also reduce the number of individuals who enroll in healthcare through either the federal or various state specific healthcare marketplaces. However, premium tax credits will still be available for those individuals that purchase health insurance through these marketplaces. If enough healthy individuals drop their coverage, both the individual and employer group health market will likely see some cost increases to pay for the adverse selection impact of this change.
It is also important to remember that this change applies to the individual penalties only. The potential employer penalties for failing to offer coverage or offering inadequate coverage will remain, as well as the current law’s information reporting requirement.
IRS has begun notifying employers of their potential liability for an ACA employer shared responsibility payment in connection with the 2015 calendar year. It recently released Forms 14764 and 14765, which employers can use to dispute the assessment.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes employer shared responsibility requirements that are commonly referred to as the “employer mandate.” Beginning in 2015, applicable large employers (ALEs) – generally, employers with at least 50 full-time employees – are required to offer minimum essential coverage to substantially all full-time employees and their dependents, or pay a penalty if at least one full-time employee enrolls in marketplace coverage and receives a premium tax credit. Even if they offer employees coverage, ALEs may still be subject to an employer shared responsibility payment if the coverage they offer to full-time employees does not meet affordability standards or fails to provide minimum value.
The IRS announced their plans in Fall of 2017 to notify employers of their potential liability for an employer penalty for the 2015 calendar year. It released FAQs explaining that Letter 226J will note the employees by month who received a premium tax credit, and provide the proposed employer penalty. Additionally, the IRS promised to release forms for an employer’s penalty response and the employee premium tax credit (PTC) list respectively.
On Form 14764, employers indicate full or partial agreement or disagreement with the proposed employer penalty, as well as the preferred employer penalty payment option. An employer that disagrees with the assessment must include a signed statement explaining the disagreement, including any supporting documentation. This form also allows employers to authorize a representative, such as an attorney, to contact the IRS about the proposed employer penalty.
On Form 14765, the IRS lists the name and last four digits of the social security number of any full-time employee who received a premium tax credit for one or more months during 2015 and where the employer did not qualify for an affordability safe harbor or other relief via Form 1095-C. Each monthly box has a row reflecting any codes entered on line 14 and line 16 of the employee’s Form 1095-C. If a given month is not highlighted, the employee is an assessable full-time employee for that month – resulting in a potential employer assessment for that month.
If information reported on an employee’s Form 1095-C was not accurate or was incomplete, an employer wishing to make changes must use the applicable indicator codes for lines 14 and 16 described in the Form 1094-C and 1095-C instructions. The employer should enter the new codes in the second row of each monthly box by using the indicator codes for lines 14 and 16. The employer can provide additional information about the changes for an employee by checking the “Additional Information Attached” column. As mentioned:
Employers: Carefully Consider 226J Letter Responses
Miscoding can happen for different reasons, including vendor errors and inaccurate data. To minimize risk of additional IRS exposure, employers should carefully consider how best to respond to a 226J letter given circumstances surrounding the disputed assessments. For example, changing the coding on the 1095-C of an employee from full-time to part-time could trigger further review or questions by the IRS on the process for determining who is a full-time employee – and may increase the likelihood of IRS penalties for reporting errors on an employer’s Form 1095-Cs.
In its October FAQs, the IRS stated that it “plans to issue Letter 226J informing ALEs of their potential liability for an employer shared responsibility payment, if any, in late 2017.” If the IRS sticks to that timing, all notices should be sent out by the end of this calendar year. However, because the IRS has not indicated that it will inform employers that they have no employer penalty due, it is impossible to say that an employer not receiving a Letter 226J in 2017 is home free for 2015 employer penalties.
Employers should review the newly released forms so they are prepared to respond within 30 days of the date on the Letter 226J. They should also ensure processes are in place to make these payments, as necessary. Even employers who are not expecting any assessments will need to prepare to respond to the IRS within the limited timeframe to dispute any incorrect assessments.
As we near closer to Thanksgiving, it’s safe to say we are in “late 2017” territory. Last week, the IRS issued new FAQ guidance informing employers that they can expect notice of any potential ACA employer mandate pay or play penalties in late 2017.
What Will the Letter Look Like?
The IRS recently posted a copy of the Letter 226J here: https://www.irs.gov/pub/notices/ltr226j.pdf
Letters Will Look Back to 2015
The ACA employer mandate pay or play rules first took effect in 2015. The IRS Letters 226J at issue will relate only to potential penalties in that first year, and therefore they will be relevant only to employers that were applicable large employers (ALEs) in 2015.
In general, an employer was an ALE in 2015 if it (along with any members in its controlled group) employed an average of at least 50 full-time employees, including full-time equivalent employees, on business days during the preceding calendar year (2014).
Note that a special 2015 transition rule provided that certain “mid-sized” employers between 50 and 100 full-time employees could have reported an exemption from potential pay or play penalties.
What Are the Potential 2015 Penalties?
a) §4980H(a)—The “A Penalty” aka No Coverage Offered
This is the big “sledge hammer” penalty for failure to offer coverage to substantially all full-time employees. In 2015, this standard required an offer of coverage to at least 70% of the ALE’s full-time employees. (For 2016 forward, this standard has been increased to 95%).
The 2015 A Penalty was $173.33/month ($2,080 annualized) multiplied by all full-time employees then reduced by the first 80 full-time employees (reduced by the first 30 full-time employees for 2016 forward). It was triggered by at least one full-time employee who was not offered group coverage enrolling in subsidized coverage on the Exchange.
The reduced 70% threshold for the 2015 penalty should be sufficient for virtually all ALEs in 2015 to avoid the A Penalty, provided they offered a group health plan with eligibility set at 30 hours per week or lower. It would be very unlikely for a surprise A Penalty to arise for 2015.
b) §4980H(b)—The “B Penalty” aka Coverage Not Affordable
This is the much smaller “tack hammer” penalty that will apply where the ALE is not subject to the A Penalty (i.e., the ALE offered coverage to at least 70% of full-time employees in 2015, or 95% thereafter). It applies for each full-time employee who was not offered coverage, offered unaffordable coverage, or offered coverage that did not provide minimum value and was enrolled in subsidized converge on the Exchange.
The 2015 B Penalty was $260/month ($3,120 annualized). Unlike the A Penalty, the B Penalty multiplier is only those full-time employees not offered coverage (or offered unaffordable or non-minimum value coverage) who actually enrolled in the Exchange. The multiple is not all full-time employees.
What Happened to My Section 1411 Certification?
In the vast majority of states, they never came!
In short, the 1411 Certification (typically referred to as Employer Exchange Notices) informs the employer that one or more of their employees have been conditionally approved for subsidies (the Advance Premium Tax Credit) to pay for coverage on the exchange.
One important purpose of the notice is it provides employers with the chance to contemporaneously challenge the employee’s subsidy approval. Near the time of the employee’s subsidy approval, the ALE can show that it made an offer of minimum essential coverage to the full-time employee that was affordable and provided minimum value.
In other words, the notices provide the ALE with the opportunity to prevent the employee from incorrectly receiving the subsidies, and the ALE from ever receiving the Letter 226J from the IRS (because all ACA pay or play penalties are triggered by a full-time employee’s subsidized Exchange enrollment).
CMS admitted in a September 2015 FAQ that they were not able to send the notices for 2015 for federal exchange enrollment (most state exchanges took the same approach), but the potential penalties will nonetheless still apply.
The result is that ALEs will for be receiving their first notice of potential 2015 penalties via IRS Letter 226J in “late 2017.”
How Does the IRS Determine Potential Penalties?
The 2015 ACA reporting via Forms 1094-C and 1095-C (as well as the employee’s subsidized exchange enrollment data for 2015) serve as the primary basis for the IRS determination.
What Do I Need to Do?
First of all, review the information carefully.
The first-year ACA reporting for 2015 was a particularly difficult one, and one in which the IRS provided extended deadlines and a good faith efforts standard. It is very possible that the numerous challenging systems issues that made the first-year (and, frankly, all subsequent years) ACA reporting so difficult resulted in certain inaccuracies on the 2015 Forms 1094-C and 1095-C.
Be sure to review any potential penalties carefully with your systems records to confirm the reporting was correct.
a) If You Agree with the Penalty Determination – You will complete and return a Form 14764 that is enclosed with the letter, and include full payment for the penalty amount assessed (or pay electronically via EFTPS).
b) If You Disagree with the Penalty Determination – The enclosed Form 14764 will also include a “ESRP Response” form to send to the IRS explaining the basis for your disagreement. You may include any documentation (e.g., employment or offer of coverage records) with the supporting statement.
The response statement will also need to include what changes the ALE would like to make to the Forms 1094-C and/or 1095-C on the enclosed “Employee PTC Listing,” which is a report of the subsidized Exchange enrollment for all of the ALE’s full-time employees. The Letter 226J includes specific instructions on completing this process.
The IRS will respond with a Letter 227 that acknowledges the ALE’s response to Letter 226J and describes any further actions the ALE may need to take. If you disagree with the Letter 227, you can request a “pre-assessment conference” with the IRS Office of Appeals within 30 days from the date of the Letter 227.
If the IRS determines at the end of the correspondence and/or conference that the ALE still owes a penalty, the IRS will issue Notice CP 220J. This is the notice and demand for payment, with a summary of the pay or play penalties due.
Yesterday (May 4, 2017) , the House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA), which contains major parts that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare or ACA). The next obstacle the bill faces is making it through the Senate, which proves to be a formidable challenge.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has not had time yet to analyze the current version of the bill, but this is expected next week. The bill must now pass the Senate and could get pushed back to the House if it sees changes in the upper chamber.
In the meantime, here are some highlights we know about the bill based on how it is written today and how it would work:
We will continue to keep you up to date on the bill as it progress through legislation.
Earlier this week, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act (“Act”). This Act contains provisions for “Qualified Small Business Health Reimbursement Arrangements” (“HRA”). This new HRA would allow eligible small employers to offer a health reimbursement arrangement funded solely by the employer that would reimburse employees for qualified medical expenses including health insurance premiums.
The maximum reimbursement that can be provided under the plan is $4,950 or $10,000 if the HRA provided for family members of the employee. An employer is eligible to establish a small employer health reimbursement arrangement if that employer (i) is not subject to the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act (i.e., less than 50 full-time employees) and (ii) does not offer a group health plan to any employees.
To be a qualified small employer HRA, the arrangement must be provided on the same terms to all eligible employees, although the Act allows benefits under the HRA to vary based on age and family-size variations in the price of an insurance policy in the relevant individual health insurance market.
Employers must report contributions to a reimbursement arrangement on their employees’ W-2 each year and notify each participant of the amount of benefit provided under the HRA each year at least 90 days before the beginning of each year.
This new provision also provides that employees that are covered by this HRA will not be eligible for subsidies for health insurance purchased under an exchange during the months that they are covered by the employer’s HRA.
Such HRAs are not considered “group health plans” for most purposes under the Code, ERISA and the Public Health Service Act and are not subject to COBRA.
This new provision also overturns guidance issued by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor that stated that these arrangements violated the Affordable Care Act insurance market reforms and were subject to a penalty for providing such arrangements.
The previous IRS and DOL guidance would still prohibit these arrangements for larger employers. The provision is effective for plan years beginning after December 31, 2016. (There was transition relief for plans offering these benefits that ends December 31, 2016 and extends the relief given in IRS Notice 2015-17.)
The next ACA compliance hurdle employers are set to face is managing subsidy notifications and appeals. Many exchanges recently began mailing out notifications this summer and it’s important for employers to make sure they’re prepared to manage the process. Why? Well, subsidies—also referred to as Advanced Premium Tax Credits, are a trigger for employer penalties. If you fail to offer coverage to an eligible employee and the employee receives a subsidy, you may be liable for a fine.
If an employee receives a subsidy, you’ll receive a notice. This is where things can get complicated. You need to ensure that the notifications go directly to the correct person or department as soon as possible, because you (the employer) only have 90 days from the date on the notification to respond. And rounding up these notices may not be so easy. For example, your employee may not have put the right employer address on their exchange / marketplace application. Most often, employees will list the address of the location where they work, not necessarily the address where the notification should go, like your headquarters or HR department. If the employee is receiving a subsidy but put a wrong address or did not put any address for their employer, you will not even receive a notice about that employee.
Once you receive the notification, you must decide whether or not you want to appeal the subsidy. If you offered minimum essential coverage (MEC) to the employee who received a subsidy and it met both the affordability and minimum value requirements, you should consider appealing.
You may think that appealing a subsidy and potentially getting in the way of your employee receiving a tax credit could create complications. Believe it or not, you may actually be doing your employee a favor. If an employee receives a subsidy when they weren’t supposed to, they’ll likely have to repay some (or all) of the subsidy amount back when they file their taxes. Your appeal can help minimize the chance of this happening since they will learn sooner rather than later that they didn’t qualify for the subsidy. Plus, the appeal can help prevent unnecessary fines impacting your organization by showing that qualifying coverage was in fact offered.
If you have grounds to appeal, you can complete an Employer Appeal Request Form and submit it to the appropriate exchange / marketplace (Note: this particular form is intended to appeal subsidies through the Federal exchange). The form will ask for information about your organization, the employee whose subsidy you’re appealing, and why you’re appealing it. Once sent, the exchange will notify both you and the employee when the appeal was received.
Next, the exchange will review the case and make a decision. In some cases, the exchange may choose to hold a hearing. Once a decision is made, you and your employee will be notified. But it doesn’t necessarily end there. Your employee will have an opportunity to appeal the exchange’s decision with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If HHS decides to hold a hearing, you may be called to testify. In this situation, HHS will review the case and make a final decision. If HHS decides that the employee isn’t eligible for the subsidy, then the employee may have to repay the subsidy amount for the last few months. On the other hand, if the HHS decides the employee is eligible for the subsidy, it will be important for you to keep your appeal on file since this can potentially result in a fine from the IRS later in the year.
Sound complicated? It certainly can be. Managing subsidies and appeals could quickly add up to a substantial time investment, and if handled improperly you could see additional impacts to your bottom line in the form of fines. Handling subsidy notifications and appeals properly up front can lead to fewer fines down the road, benefiting both you and your employees.
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.