The already busy (read: crabby) IRS and it’s agents already try to catch tax cheats and under the proposed health care legislation, they would get another assignment: checking to see whether Americans have health insurance. The legislation would require most Americans to have health insurance and to prove it on their federal tax returns. Those who don’t would pay a penalty to the IRS.
Good thing that IRS agents get to carry guns, unlike their Canadian counterparts…
That’s one of several key duties the IRS would assume under the bills that have been approved by the House of Representatives and Senate and will be merged by negotiators from both chambers.
The IRS also would distribute as much as $140 billion a year in new government subsidies to help small employers and as many as 19 million lower-income people buy coverage.
In addition, the IRS would collect hundreds of billions of dollars in new fees on employers, drug companies and device makers, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Some critics of the health bill question whether the IRS, which has struggled in recent years with budget problems, staffing shortages and outdated computer systems, will be up to the job of enforcing the mandate and efficiently handling the subsidies.
The CBO estimated the IRS would need $5 billion to $10 billion in the first decade to cover the costs of its expanded role. The IRS’ annual budget is currently $11.5 billion.
Neither the House nor Senate bill includes funding for the IRS, but money could be added by House and Senate negotiators.
The IRS already has trouble meeting its primary duty: collecting taxes. By the IRS’s own estimates, it failed to collect about $290 billion in taxes in 2005, the latest year for which data are available.
In one of the biggest examples of using the tax code to achieve a social goal, Congress shifted much of its effort to help the poor in the 1990s from direct spending to the Earned Income Tax Credit, an IRS-run program that pays rebates to low-income working people to offset taxes.
In 2005, more than 22 million people claimed the credit, resulting in more than $40 billion in payments, a Treasury Department inspector general found last year. The audit found $11.4 billion in improper payments in 2005 — about 28 cents of every dollar paid out.
Under the health care legislation, the IRS would determine who qualifies for the insurance subsidies. Those subsidies would apply to people with incomes up to four times the federal poverty level, which is $43,320 for an individual and $88,200 for a family of four. The government would pay insurance companies to help individuals buy policies on the new exchanges. The exchanges, a central feature in both bills, would be a sort of marketplace where small businesses and individuals who don’t get employer-sponsored coverage could shop for health plans.
To meet the mandate, Americans would have to provide proof of insurance coverage with their annual tax returns. The mandate would begin in 2013 under the House bill; 2014 in the Senate bill.
The penalty in the Senate bill for not having coverage would start in 2014 at $95 or 0.5% of an individual’s income, whichever is greater. It would rise to $750 or 2% of annual income in 2016, up to the cost of the cheapest health plans. The House bill penalty would be up to 2.5% of an individual’s income up to the cost of the average health plan.
In 2007, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a health insurance mandate and lowered the percentage of uninsured residents from 7% to 4%. State residents there were required to report their health insurance status on a special form they attach to state income tax returns. Insurers provide statements to policyholders confirming coverage and report that data to the state Department of Revenue.
The state tax agency did not get extra staff or money for enforcement and has not had serious difficulties gathering the information, spokesman Robert Bliss said. In 2008, more than 96% of tax filers provided proof of coverage. Only 1.3% of filers, or about 45,000 residents, were assessed a no-coverage penalty of up to $1,068. The “vast majority” of Massachusetts residents who pay the penalty are self-reported, Bliss said.
Bliss said the fact that the department had 18 months to get ready for the state’s insurance mandate was “enormously important” in making sure it was ready to handle the assignment. That bodes well for the IRS, which would have three to four years to get ready under the bills.
Under the current versions of the health care bills, the IRS would oversee:
- Subsidies for low-income people purchasing health insurance through newly created state exchanges.
- Small-business tax credits to provide insurance to employees,
- Enforcement of mandate that all U.S. citizens and legal residents have insurance.
- Penalties on employers for not providing affordable coverage if any of their employees get subsidies under the new insurance exchanges.
- A tax on insurers that provide high-cost “Cadillac” insurance benefits.
- Penalties for improper distributions from Health Savings Accounts, which would increase under the legislation.
- Contributions to Flexible Savings Accounts, which would be limited.
- New requirements for non-profit hospitals to prove their charitable missions, such as doing a “community needs assessment” once every three years.
- Taxes on pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and health insurance providers.