4 Thoughts About Supreme Court Premium Tax Credit Decision

As we all know by now, the US Supreme Court upheld the government regulations that provide that an otherwise qualified individual who obtains health insurance through the federal exchange (rather than a state exchange) is entitled to a Premium Tax Credit (PTC). This is the 6/25/15 decision in King v Burwell. I think this is the logical ruling because the Act does provide that if a state doesn’t create an exchange, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to establish one. Also, since this is the “Affordable Care” Act we are talking about, the PTC is a key part that helps make insurance affordable for many who have household income at or below 400% of the federal poverty line (more so for younger people in regions where the cost of living is not high – not for all individuals).

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Four quick thoughts about the PTC and ACA:

1. It seems that states with exchanges should consider ending them to save costs and let people go to the federal exchange.  This seems to be an unintended consequence of the decision and the feds might not have sufficient resources to handle this possible action.

2. This survival of the PTC should lead Congress and President Obama to fix it.  It is too complex (see the flowchart above and the Section 36B and regulations). Also, the IRS likely does not have the resources to determine if people properly claimed it.

3. Address policy issues with the PTC and other tax benefits tied to health insurance: The PTC unrealistically behaves as if individuals of all ages and all geographic regions can spend about 8% of their income to obtain health insurance.  Because insurance costs more as you age and housing costs a lot more in some regions, that assumption is unrealistic.  Health insurance tax rules should be examined as a whole to try to better equalize the treatment among different ways to obtain health insurance.  The best deal is to get employer-provided coverage because it is tax-exempt to the worker – no income or payroll tax. And you get this benefit regardless of your income level – whether your household income is at the federal poverty line of 100 times or more of the federal poverty line. In contrast, you can only get a PTC if your household income is at or below 400% of the federal poverty line.  This is a completely unfair way to subsidize health insurance costs.

4. Why not take the bold step of divorcing health insurance from employment?  It drives up costs, it creates unfair tax advantages for those who have it, and the cost to employers helps make them uncompetitive in the global market.  The tax cost of the employer-provided health insurance exclusion is over $200 billion per year.  Why not use this money to lower rates and improve and expand the PTC?

What do you think?

Original Post By:  Annette Nellen

Annette Nellen, CPA, Esq., is a professor in and director of San Jose State University’s graduate tax program (MST), teaching courses in tax research, accounting methods, property transactions, state taxation, employment tax, ethics, tax policy, tax reform, and high technology tax issues.

Annette is the immediate past chair of the AICPA Individual Taxation Technical Resource Panel and a current member of the Executive Committee of the Tax Section of the California Bar. Annette is a regular contributor to the AICPA Tax Insider and Corporate Taxation Insider e-newsletters. She is the author of BNA Portfolio #533, Amortization of Intangibles.

Annette has testified before the House Ways & Means Committee, Senate Finance Committee, California Assembly Revenue & Taxation Committee, and tax reform commissions and committees on various aspects of federal and state tax reform.

Prior to joining SJSU, Annette was with Ernst & Young and the IRS.

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