During the coming months, employers may have questions about whether they still need to worry about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The answer is yes; the ACA is alive and well, despite renewed legal challenges and the elimination of the individual mandate beginning next year.
While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the tax penalty for individuals who don’t have health coverage to $0, effective for 2019, employers are still subject to penalties for failing to comply with certain ACA rules. For example, the IRS is currently enforcing “employer shared responsibility payments” (ESRP) penalties against large employers who fail to meet the ACA requirements to offer qualifying health coverage to their full-time employees. For this purpose, large employers are those with 50 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees. Here are four things about the ACA that employers should focus on now to avoid significant financial liabilities.
1. The IRS is currently assessing penalties using 226-J letters
In 2017, the IRS began assessing ESRP penalties against large employers that failed to offer qualifying health coverage to at least 95 percent of their full-time employees. An ESRP penalty assessment comes in the form of a 226-J letter, which explains that the employer may be liable for the penalty, based on information obtained by the IRS from Forms 1095-C filed by the employer for that coverage year, and tax returns filed by the employer’s employees. The employer has only 30 days to respond to the 226-J letter, using IRS Form 14764, which is enclosed with the 226-J letter. The employer must complete and return IRS Form 14765 to challenge any part of the assessment.
The short timeframe for responding to a 226-J letter means that staff who are likely to be the first to receive communications from the IRS should have a plan in place to react quickly. Training for staff should include information about who to notify and what documentation to keep readily available to support an appeal. Not responding to the IRS 226-J letter will result in a final assessment of the proposed penalty. These penalties can be significant. In the worst case, an employer with inadequate health coverage could pay for the cost of the coverage, as well as penalties of $2,000/year (as indexed) for every full time employee (less 30), even those who received health coverage from the employer.
Depending on the employer’s response to the initial assessment, the IRS will then send the employer one of four types of 227 acknowledgment letters. If the employer disputes the penalty, the IRS could accept the employer’s explanation and reduce the penalty to $0 (a 227-K letter). But if the IRS rejects any part of the employer’s response, the employer will receive either a 227-L letter, with a lower penalty amount, or a 227-M letter, a notice that the amount of the initial assessment hasn’t changed. These letters will explain steps the employer has to take to continue disputing the assessment, including applicable deadlines. The next phase of the appeal might include requesting a telephone conference or meeting with an IRS supervisor, or requesting a hearing with the IRS Office of Appeals.
2. ACA reporting requirements and penalties still apply
Along with the ESRP penalties, the Form 1094-C and 1095-C reporting requirements still apply to large employers. The IRS uses information on Forms 1095-C in applying the ESRP rules and deciding whether to assess penalties against the reporting employer. Large employers must file Forms 1095-C every year with the IRS and send them to full-time employees in order to document compliance with the ACA requirement to offer qualified, affordable coverage to at least 95 percent of full-time employees. Technically, the forms are due to employees by January 31, and to the IRS by March 31, each year, to report compliance for the prior year. In the past, the IRS has extended the deadline for providing the forms to employees, but not the deadline for filing with the IRS.
Penalties can apply if an employer fails to file with the IRS or provide the forms to employees, and the penalty amount can be doubled if the IRS determines that the employer intentionally disregarded the filing requirement. These penalties can apply if an employer fails to file or provide the forms at all, files and provides the forms late, or if the forms are timely filed and provided, but are incorrect or incomplete.
In some instances, the IRS has assessed ESRP penalties based on Form 1095-C reporting errors. So, in addition to the reporting-related penalties, inaccurate information on Forms 1095-C can lead to erroneous ESRP assessments that the employer will then need to refute, using the IRS forms and procedures described above.
Employers should carefully monitor their ACA filings and reports, and consider correcting prior forms if errors are discovered. Employers should also continue tracking offers of coverage made for each month of 2018, to prepare for compliance with the Form 1095-C reporting requirement early in 2019.
3. “Summary of Benefits and Coverage” disclosure forms are still required
The ACA added a new disclosure requirement for group health plans, called a “Summary of Benefits and Coverage” or “SBC,” that’s intended to help employees make an “apples to apples” comparison of different benefit plan features, such as deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums, and copayments for various benefits and services. This requirement still applies, and SBCs must be provided during open enrollment, upon an employee’s initial eligibility for coverage under the plan, and in response to a request from an employee. The template SBC form and instructions for completing it were updated for coverage periods starting after April 1, 2017. For 2018, a penalty of $1,128 per participant can apply to the failure to provide an SBC as required.
4. The “Cadillac Tax” has not been repealed
The ACA’s so-called Cadillac tax — an annual excise tax on high-cost health coverage — was initially scheduled to take effect in 2018. The Cadillac tax has been repeatedly delayed, and the federal budget bill passed in January delayed it again through December 31, 2021. Despite the repeated delays, the Cadillac tax has not been repealed and is currently scheduled to apply to health coverage offered on or after January 1, 2022. This might be an issue to consider for employers who are negotiating collective bargaining agreements in 2018 that include terms for health benefits extending beyond 2021.
While uncertainty continues to surround the ACA, employers should remain aware of continuing compliance requirements to avoid the potentially significant penalties that remain in effect under the ACA.
Judy Boyette is a partner at Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco. With unique experience as both a lawyer and an administrator with hands-on experience running large, complex employee benefit programs, Judy has advised employers and employee benefit plans on all aspects of compensation and benefits including tax, regulatory, fiduciary responsibility, financing and organizational integrity issues for more than 25 years.
Liz Masson is a senior counsel at Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco. Focusing her practice on employee benefits law, Liz represents public and private employee benefit plan sponsors and fiduciaries in all aspects of compliance with the Internal Revenue Code, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Affordable Care Act, COBA, HIPAA, and various federal and state labor and employment laws.