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:
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.