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To Pay Or Not To Pay - That Is The Question

CarbonNYC / Flickr
 

CarbonNYC / Flickr

Emily Bazar | Kaiser Health News

K. A. Curtis gave up her career in the nonprofit world in 2008 to care for her ailing parents in Fresno, which also meant giving up her income.

She wasn’t able to afford health insurance as a result, and for each tax year since 2014, Curtis has applied for – and received – an exemption from Obamacare’s coverage requirement and the related tax penalty, she says.

This year, given President Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, along with his executive order urging federal officials to weaken parts of the law, Curtis began to wonder whether she’d even have to apply for an exemption for her 2016 taxes.

She also heard that the Internal Revenue Service recently flip-flopped on its previous decision to reject 2016 tax returns that don’t include the taxpayer’s health coverage status.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I won’t have to apply for the exemption again’,” says Curtis, 59. “The public debate about the law makes it confusing.”

Indeed, there’s widespread confusion among consumers about the status of Obamacare, and because of that, they are uncertain how to handle Obamacare-related tax requirements.

Should you still submit your 1095 tax forms that show when you were covered – or, if you purchased a plan from an exchange, the amount of tax credits you received? Should you apply for an exemption from the Obamacare coverage requirement?

If you were uninsured in 2016 and don’t qualify for an exemption, should you pay the Obamacare tax penalty?

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths floating around,” says Lawrence Pon, a certified public accountant (CPA) in Redwood City. “Some of my clients ask me, ‘Does the law still exist?’”

It sure does.

As a result, California tax experts have some relatively simple advice for confused taxpayers.

“Until Obamacare is no longer the law of the land, we don’t have much choice other than to continue under the current rules and regulations,” says Janet Krochman, a CPA in Costa Mesa.

Death, Taxes and Obamacare

This year’s tax filing deadline is April 18.

And as many of you learned in the past few years, Obamacare and taxes are inextricably linked.

As part of filing your tax return, you need to prove you had health insurance, or pay a penalty, unless you qualify for one of the law’s exemptions.

If you bought coverage through a health insurance exchange such as Covered California and received federal tax credits, which are based on an estimate of your income, you must report whether your actual income varied from your estimate. Since most of you received tax credits in advance, you may either owe or be owed money if there’s a difference.

Many tax preparers say they’d rather not deal with the law’s arcane and complex requirements. But every single one I spoke with says they will continue doing so as long as former President Obama’s health law exists.

“I tell everybody I want all of their forms. We’re going to document everything,” says Rebecca Neilson, a registered tax preparer in Sheridan, about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento. “I’m not going to change what I’m doing because the law might get changed.”

However, a recent IRS switch has fueled hopes among some consumers that the agency won’t enforce the Obamacare tax penalty for 2016.

On 1040 tax forms, taxpayers must check a box attesting that they had health care coverage, or enter their penalty amount if they didn’t.

For the first two tax years that Obamacare was in effect, the IRS accepted tax returns that didn’t include this information, but often followed up with taxpayers to get it. For 2015, about 4.3 million taxpayers did not check the box, claim an exemption from coverage or pay a penalty, according to the IRS.

The IRS had said it would start rejecting those forms outright for the 2016 tax year – until Trump signed his executive order.

Citing the order, the agency now says it will continue to process tax forms that don’t include a taxpayer’s health coverage status. “This is similar to how we handled this in previous years,” says an IRS statement.

At the same time, the agency says it will continue to enforce the health law and may follow up with taxpayers who withhold their coverage information.

“Legislative provisions of the ACA law are still in force until changed by the Congress, and taxpayers remain required to follow the law and pay what they may owe,” the IRS statement says.

Mixed Signals

Andrew Porter, a CPA in Contra Costa County, believes that the agency “has just added to the confusion” with this change, but that taxpayers shouldn’t be lulled into complacency.

“They have to enforce the law,” he says. “It’s exactly the same as last year.”

Though Porter doesn’t advise it, if you choose not to report your coverage on your tax return, he urges you to make sure you have your 1095 form so you have proof of coverage.

“If the IRS does come calling and says you owe this penalty, producing that document may be very useful,” he says.

Michael Eisenberg, a CPA in Encino, acknowledges that there may be consumers who owe a penalty and are hoping that a repeal in the coming months would get them off the hook.

They could request a tax-filing extension, allowing them to submit tax forms to the IRS in October, he says.

But that’s not a sure thing, and would require any change in the law to be retroactive to the 2016 tax year, he says. If the penalty is not forgiven, they would have to pay it, plus interest.

“Maybe there will be clarity by October, maybe there won’t be,” Eisenberg says. “You can take your chances, but what’s the likelihood the law will be repealed retroactively? I don’t think it’s that great.”

Krochman, the Costa Mesa CPA, has a few clients who owed the penalty in previous years but haven’t paid it.

“They’re kicking the can down the road in the hopes there will be retroactive removal of the penalty once the law is repealed or replaced,” she says. “What happens down that road, we don’t know.”

Given the uncertainty, my biggest piece of advice is, and always has been, to consult with a tax professional. If you can’t afford it, multiple programs offer free tax help, including the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, run by the IRS (www.irs.gov/VITA) and the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program (www.aarp.org/findtaxhelp).

In the face of the confusion, Curtis, of Fresno, erred on the side of caution.

“I ended up deciding this year to go ahead and file the exemption paperwork and be safer than sorry,” she says. “It is the law and we’re stuck navigating our way through it, as difficult as it may be.”

Questions for Emily: AskEmily@kff.org

Click here to find previous Ask Emily columns.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California HealthCare Foundation.

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