The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold most of Barack Obama’s health care law will begin affecting most taxpayers in about 2½ years, when they’ll have to start providing proof on their tax returns that they have health insurance. This puts the IRS at the center of the debate, raising questions about whether they can of police the health care decisions of millions of people in the U.S. while also collecting the taxes needed to run the federal government.
Under the law, the IRS will provide tax breaks and incentives to help pay for health insurance and impose penalties on some people who don’t buy coverage and on some businesses that don’t offer it to employees. The changes will require new regulations, forms and publications, new computer programs and a big new outreach program to explain it all to taxpayers and tax professionals. Businesses that don’t claim an exemption will have to prove they offer health insurance to employees.
The health care law “includes the largest set of tax law changes in more than 20 years,” according to the Treasury inspector general who oversees the IRS. The agency will have to hire thousands of workers to manage it, requiring significant budget increases that already are being targeted by congressional Republicans determined to dismantle the president’s signature initiative.
Those who don’t get qualified health insurance will be required to pay the penalty — or tax — starting for the 2014 tax year, unless they are exempt because of low income, religious beliefs, or because they are members of American Indian tribes. The penalty will be fully phased in by 2016, when it will be $695 for each uninsured adult or 2.5 percent of family income, whichever is greater, up to $12,500. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 4 million people will pay the penalty that year.
The law, however, severely limits the ability of the IRS to collect the penalties. There are no civil or criminal penalties for refusing to pay it and the IRS cannot seize bank accounts or dock wages to collect it. No interest accumulates for unpaid penalties. So how can the IRS enforce the mandate? Scary letters and threats to withhold tax refunds.
The IRS is expected to spend $881 million on the law from 2010 through 2013, hiring more than 2,700 new workers and upgrading its computer systems. But the IRS has not made public information about its spending plans in the following years, when the bulk of the health care law takes effect. In 2010, House Ways and Means Committee Republicans issued a report saying the IRS may need as many as 16,500 additional auditors, agents and other employees “to investigate and collect billions in new taxes from Americans.”