Tax Preparers Get Ready To Be Bearers Of Bad News About Health Law

Jan 21, 2015
Originally published on January 24, 2015 4:17 pm

Are you thinking about tax day yet? Your friendly neighborhood tax preparer is. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen declared this tax season one of the most complicated ever, partly because this is the first year that the Affordable Care Act will show up on your tax form.

Tax preparers from coast to coast are trying to get ready. Sue Ellen Smith manages an H&R Block office in San Francisco, and she is expecting things to get busy soon.

"This year taxes and health care intersect in a brand-new way," Smith says.

For most people who get insurance through work, the change will be simple: checking a box on the tax form that says, "Yes, I had health insurance all year."

But it will be much more complex for an estimated 25 million to 30 million people who didn't have health insurance or who bought subsidized coverage through the exchanges.

To get ready, Smith and her team have been training for months, running through a range of hypothetical scenarios. She introduces "Ray" and "Vicky," a fictional couple from an H&R Block flyer. Together they earn $65,000 a year, and neither has health insurance.

"The biggest misconception I hear people say is, 'Oh, the penalty's only $95, that's easy,' " says Smith, but the Rays and Vickys of the world are in for a surprise. "In this situation, it's almost $450."

That's because the penalty for being uninsured in 2014 is $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. Next year, it's 2 percent. Smith says the smartest move for people to avoid those penalties is to sign up for insurance before Feb. 15, the end of the health law's open enrollment period.

But a lot of people may not think about this until they file their taxes in April. For them, it will be too late to sign up for health insurance and too late to do anything about next year's penalty, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt Tax Services.

"They're kind of stuck," says Steber. "Quite frankly that's a very difficult discussion."

Steber's team at Jackson Hewitt is also role playing with tax advisors to prepare them for delivering bad news, in case taxpayers want to blame the messenger.

Lou Graham works at an H&R Block office in Hartford, Conn., and he is facing the same concerns. He is bracing to tell some people who got a subsidy all year long that it was actually too generous — maybe they made more money than they originally estimated. And, soon, they'll have to pay the government back.

"I'm going to tell a client, 'I'm sorry, $300 of your return is not going to be yours.' Well, that will send them right through the roof," Graham says.

Like his colleague Smith in California, Graham is afraid some people may be completely unaware of the penalty for not having insurance.

That means Graham may have to deliver two pieces of bad news. First, he'll tell them they owe a penalty for 2014, and then he'll tell them it's too late to sign up for 2015. "So they're going to get stymied twice," he says.

Graham says he also hopes to guide people to some good news. A lot of people may not know that they're able to get an exemption from the law's mandate to get insurance, and it's his job to pull it out of them.

A client could say to him, for example, "'I didn't have insurance for six months, but you know what? I had got a notice that my electricity was going to be cut off.' Well, you fall into a hardship case," says Graham. "Those things need to be explored and not many people want to bring that forward."

Bringing it forward it important. Tax preparers like Graham can only help if tax filers seek them out, and most people don't - not this early, at least, he says. "People don't really start thinking about tax work until they get their W-2s in their hands."

That presents a real crunch. Most people won't get those W-2s until the end of January. That gives them just two weeks before the Obamacare clock runs out on them on February 15.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WNPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Who wants to think about tax day this early? Well, your friendly neighborhood tax preparers are doing just that. The commissioner of the IRS has said this tax season will be one of the most complicated ever in part because of the subsidies and penalties in the Affordable Care Act. Let's hear from two parts of the country now. In a moment, Jeff Cohen of WNPR will bring us a story of a tax preparer in Connecticut. But first, April Dembosky from KQED in San Francisco takes us to an H&R Block office in that city.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Most days in early January, this H&R Block office in San Francisco is dead.

SUE ELLEN SMITH: Hi. I'm Sue Ellen Smith.

DEMBOSKY: But the office manager here is expecting things to pick up fast.

SMITH: This year, taxes and health care intersect in a brand new way.

DEMBOSKY: Smith and her team have been training for months, running through a range of hypothetical scenarios. She introduces me to Ray and Vicky. They're a fictional couple from an H&R Block flyer. Together, they earned $65,000 a year. Neither has health insurance.

SMITH: The biggest misconception I hear is people say, oh, the penalty's only $95. That's easy.

DEMBOSKY: Smith says a lot of people like Ray and Vicky are in for a surprise this year.

SMITH: In this situation, it's almost $450.

DEMBOSKY: That's because the penalty for being uninsured is $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. Next year, it's 2 percent. Smith says there's some relief for people who come in before February 15. That's the deadline to enroll in a health plan.

SMITH: That's the smartest move.

DEMBOSKY: But a lot of folks won't file their taxes until April. For them, it will be too late to do anything about next year's penalty.

MARK STEBER: So they're kind of stuck.

DEMBOSKY: Mark Steber is the chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt Tax Services. They're also role playing with tax advisers to prepare them for delivering bad news in case taxpayers want to blame the messenger.

STEBER: Quite frankly, that's a very difficult discussion.

DEMBOSKY: Steber says Jackson Hewitt has been trying to get the government to align the health insurance enrollment deadline with the tax deadline so people aren't caught off guard. Back at the H&R Block office, Sue Ellen Smith has another couple for me to meet, Dan and Lucy. They did sign up for health insurance last year, and they even got a subsidy to help them pay their premiums.

SMITH: They were entitled to, say, a $1,500 subsidy.

DEMBOSKY: But then, Lucy got a part-time job. That means they have to pay most of that subsidy back.

SMITH: So that would come out of any potential refund.

DEMBOSKY: On the other hand, some people who lost a job could see their subsidy and their refund go up. In San Francisco, I'm April Dembosky.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: And I'm Jeff Cohen. Lou Graham sits in his H&R Block office in Hartford, Connecticut, 3,000 miles away from San Francisco but with the same concerns. He's also bracing to tell some people who got a subsidy all year long that it was actually too generous. Maybe they made more money than they originally estimated, and soon they'll have to pay the government back.

LOU GRAHAM: I'm going to tell a client that, aw, I'm sorry, but $300 of your return's not going to be yours. Well, that will send them right through the roof.

COHEN: So you haven't had to tell somebody that yet?

GRAHAM: Not yet. No. Not yet.

COHEN: Are you looking forward to it?

GRAHAM: Oh, absolutely not.

COHEN: Other things concern him, too. Like his colleague Smith in California. Graham's afraid some people may be completely unaware of the penalty for not having insurance. That means he may have to deliver two pieces of bad news. First, he'll tell them they owe a penalty for 2014, and then he'll tell them it's too late to sign up for 2015.

GRAHAM: So they're going to get stymied twice.

COHEN: Graham says he also hopes to guide people to some good news. A lot of people may not know that they're able to get an exemption from the law's mandate to get insurance. And it's his job to pull it out of them.

GRAHAM: You know, I didn't have insurance for six months. But, you know what? I had got a notice that my electricity was going to be shut off. Well, you fall into a hardship case. Those things need to be explored and not many people want to bring that forward.

COHEN: And bringing it forward's important. Tax preparers like Graham can only help if tax filers seek them out. And most people don't, not yet anyway.

GRAHAM: It's real early. People don't really start thinking about tax work until they get their W-2s in their hands. You need to be proactive with tax work.

COHEN: But this year's a real crunch. Most people won't get those W-2s until the end of January. And when the April 15 tax deadline is the only deadline out there, that's not a problem. But this year, it isn't. For those Americans who still have to get insurance for this year, the deadline is February 15. And that leaves just a few weeks before the Obamacare clock runs out. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.

GREENE: That story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, local member stations and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.