Obamacare and Tax Complications

We’ve seen few administrative controversies with Obamacare’s second open-enrollment season, but as a Wall Street Journal article noted last week, the start of the 2014 tax-filing season could bring a new wave of public discontent.

This tax-filing season brings the first enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate–the complexity of which could become a boon for tax-preparation firms. The instructions for completing the mandate exemption form run 12 pages, list 19 types of exemptions (with multiple codes), and include worksheets that may require individuals to go to their state exchange’s Web site to find the monthly premiums that will determine whether they had access to “affordable” coverage.

This added documentation could confuse those used to filing short, simple tax returns. Potential bad outcomes include: filers could give up, and pay the mandate tax even though they qualify for an exemption; filers could feel compelled to hire a tax preparer to sort through the issues for them; or filers could complete the form incorrectly and find their refund held in limbo while the IRS works to resolve the errors.

Meanwhile, Americans who purchased insurance last year and obtained federal premium subsidies will have to reconcile their income and taxes owed with the subsidies they received—which were based on estimated income. The Journal article cited an H&R Block analysis that as many as half of the 6.8 million individuals who received subsidies will have to repay a portion of them.

One tax model estimates the average repayment at $208, but some families may owe more. Congress has twice raised the repayment amounts to as much as $2,500 for families at the higher end of the income-eligibility range, the Journal noted. In addition, families whose income exceeds the eligibility range—more than four times the federal poverty level, or $95,400 for a family of four last year—by even one dollar have to repay their entire subsidy, which could run many thousands of dollars.

Because many families of modest means rely on their tax refund as the major financial windfall for the year, provisions in the health law that reduce, or eliminate, those refunds could prove quite unpopular. Significantly, many filers hit by the individual mandate or the subsidy repayment provisions will not discover the impact on their tax returns until after Obamacare’s open-enrollment period ends on Feb. 15; as things stand, those individuals will not be able to adjust their insurance options, and they could face penalties for both 2014 and 2015 as a result.

More complexity for filers, more work for tax preparers, and smaller refunds for millions of Americans are a recipe for more controversy around the health-care law—as well as bureaucratic and political headaches in the weeks leading up to April 15.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.