ACA plan renewal leads to rate shock and delayed tax refunds

An Ounce Of Prevention For The ACA’s Second Open Enrollment

By Jon Kingsdale and Julia Lerche
Health Affairs Blog, August 4, 2014

Since recovering from its flawed rollout, the ACA has enjoyed a string of successes. By April, some eight million Americans managed to enroll.

Approximately 87 percent of Marketplace enrollees claimed premium tax credits, of which an estimated 85 percent, or six million, actually paid premiums. Many of the original six million, plus more recent enrollees, will experience their second enrollment between November 15, 2014 and February 15, 2015. They will also file with the IRS for a premium tax credit as early as January 2015.

The two events in combination represent a huge risk.

However, moderate rate actions, and even rate decreases, can translate into huge, net (after-subsidy) rate hikes. This is one of the challenges that Marketplaces and other stakeholders must anticipate and address. The other potential crisis for enrollees, coinciding with the last month of open enrollment, is filing for their 2014 tax refunds; while most high-income filers with complex returns file in March, April or later, many low-to-moderate-income taxpayers who anticipate a refund file by February. But doing so in 2015 may be impossible. If not addressed, rate shock followed by refund delays will deliver a one-two punch.

I. Rate Shock

Premium subsidy calculations are based on household income and the benchmark premium (second-lowest-cost silver plan) available to each household. For the benchmark plan, a subsidy-eligible enrollee’s monthly contribution is based solely on the household’s modified adjusted gross income (“MAGI”); but for any other qualified health plan, the subsidized enrollee’s contribution is based on MAGI plus/minus the difference in premium between that plan and the benchmark.

There is a very high likelihood that the price and identity of the benchmark plan will change from year to year, as issuers adjust premiums, offer new, narrow network plans, enter new Marketplaces, and expand or contract service areas. A recent study of proposed premium changes in the largest city in each of nine states indicated a change in benchmark plans in eight of them. The impact on after-subsidy rates will be very significant.

Because subsidies are tied to a benchmark plan, the only way a subsidy-eligible consumer can ensure relatively stable premiums is to enroll in the benchmark plan each year. Consumers could even move to another state and pay similar after-subsidy rates, if they were committed to enrolling in the benchmark plan. However, consumers may resist changing plans each year, because they like their current plans, they like their current providers, and/or because of simple inertia.

The calculus is even more complicated for enrollees in non-benchmark plans. Since they contribute the rate they would have paid for the benchmark plan, plus or minus the difference in premiums between their plan and the benchmark, their monthly contributions will change if either the benchmark or their current plan’s premium changes. In other words, it is the difference between two moving targets that determines the net contribution for a subsidized household in a non-benchmark plan. This creates counter-intuitive results.

II. Delayed Tax Refunds

Fifteen public Marketplaces, hundreds of issuers, and CMS/IRS have been trading information for months now in a massive effort to reconcile who is enrolled in what coverage for which months, and who owes what to whom. These are the “back-office” processes that are still being worked on, months after most consumer-facing web sites were fixed. This kind of reconciliation among accounting entities can continue for years; indeed, it is generally “tolerated” ad infinitum among insurers, Medicare, Medicaid, and hospitals with respect to claims submitted, approved, and actually paid, not to mention COB and subrogation. The firms estimate year-end liabilities and reserve for them; auditors check their credibility.

The “tolerable” accounting timeframe for taxpayers of modest means is entirely different. They typically file returns soon after receiving their W-2s in January. Why the rush? According to H&R Block, the country’s largest tax preparer, many of their 21 million clients fit the socio-economic profile of subsidy-eligible enrollees, and most of those receive tax refunds. Refunds average $2,500 to $3,000 and often represent the filers’ largest financial transaction of the year; filers may urgently need the refunds to pay rent, utilities, medical and other bills.

The annual cycle for these tax filers begins to build in January, and it crests in mid-February. No doubt, this is why the IRS requires Marketplaces to provide all their enrollees with the information required to claim and reconcile premium tax credits by January 31. However, meeting this deadline in 2015 will be a challenge, to say the least. Anticipating the need for corrections, IRS/CMS will allow Marketplaces to update these notices monthly, until April 15, 2015. They also want Marketplaces to start sending CMS this information (year-to-date) no later than October 15, but the ability of some Marketplaces to comply is in serious doubt. Even for Marketplaces that have been tracking and reconciling these data all along, two other problems will arise.

First, there will be hundreds of thousands of “open” issues in December 2014, which probably cannot be resolved in time for the January notices. If not delayed, these January notices must be subsequently “corrected.” For example, consider the impact of the 90-day grace period for late premium payment: subsidy-eligible enrollees who do not pay their share of October-through-December premiums until late December will have received APTCs for October, but not for November and December. If the late-payment is received within 90 days (December 29), the issuer must post and report it to the Marketplace, and the Marketplace must reconcile this report with prior data, report that to CMS/IRS, and incorporate it into the enrollee’s 1095-A by January 31 — smack in the middle of its busy open enrollment season. On the other hand, if late payment is not received by year-end, and there were other lapses in coverage, the enrollee may be subject to a tax penalty. (A filer may qualify for both premium tax credits and the penalty.)

Second, for tax filers accustomed to handling one or more W-2s and perhaps their bank’s 1099, the new 1095s with over a dozen data fields will be mystifying. Some tax filers will receive multiple 1095s from Marketplaces, employers and insurers. Many subsidized enrollees will probably not recall “receiving” advance tax credits, since the advance credits simply offset QHP premiums. Reconciliation will also require filing a new (8962) tax form; and filers who previously used the short form (1040EZ) must switch to a long form (1040 or 1040A).

And this is the simple scenario. The IRS regulations also describe multiple formulas for allocating premiums and tax credits among (a) members of one tax-filer’s household enrolled in multiple health plans, or (b) members of one subscriber’s family who file taxes separately.

Difficulties in projecting tax credits at the time of enrollment and fear about “claw-back” later on have received much attention. Far more significant may be the dislocation that will occur if millions of low-to-moderate income enrollees cannot file their tax returns in January and February 2015 because they lack accurate 1095s, cannot decipher them, or are stymied by the new tax forms.

Ducking This One-Two Punch

Those closest to these issues, the IRS, CMS, and Marketplaces in particular, may have more practical solutions, but we offer a few suggestions for consideration. First, urge enrollees to compare premiums and shop for the best choice of health plans, rather than auto-renew their current health plan. Exchanges were developed to facilitate comparison shopping and they should continue to engage consumers. Doing so will minimize rate shock in 2015 and can actually reduce monthly contributions for some subscribers. This means overcoming consumers’ natural inertia and the policy arguments in favor of auto reenrollment.

Second, help subsidized enrollees understand the gyrations in their net (after-subsidy) rates and select the best option. This will require decision-support tools which customer service representatives, navigators, brokers, and outreach workers can use to assist shopping and APTC redetermination. “Premium migration tables,” developed at the rating region or county level, by FPL level and household size, plus guidance as to which plans offer enrollees’ current providers, could help with renewals. The premium tables are readily doable, but they require advance notice to develop and disseminate.

Third, consider one-time “fixes” to the premium tax credit reconciliation process for 2014, in order to enable timely filing for refunds. One option might be to cut off reconciliation of premium tax credits for 2014 prior to the end of December, so that carriers and Marketplaces have enough time to issue accurate 1095 forms by January 31, 2015. Another might be for the IRS to apply Marketplace-generated data on premium tax credits, even if tax filers omit the long form and 8962s. This might even mean carrying over some 2014 reconciliations into tax-year 2015.

Fourth, prior to January 2015, mail Marketplace enrollees a partial-year 1095-A, reporting advance tax credits paid through September or October 2014. Doing so would remind enrollees that they are benefiting from these tax credits, and allow them to scrutinize and seek corrections of the calculations.

Fifth, provide clear, detailed training from the enrollees’ perspective to health plans, brokers, navigators, and tax preparers on both premium tax credits and counter-intuitive changes in enrollees’ contributions.

The next customer experience with new enrollments, renewals, and tax filings is the next big opportunity to reset public perception of the ACA. At a minimum, those who will be holding enrollees’ hands next winter, must understand these challenges and be given the tools and training to help their clients cope.



By Don McCanne, MD

Easy. Set up marketplaces (ACA insurance exchanges), let each shop for his or her own preferences, then apply premium subsidies based on income. Then next year let the plan automatically renew. Then why does it require so many words for Jon Kingsdale and Julia Lerche to describe this simple process?

Clearly, when you read this article, you see that the process is not simple, and, at that, only some of the complexities are discussed here. These complexities are directly due to the highly flawed model of reform selected by President Obama and the Democratic members of Congress.

The authors suggest five possibilities for getting around the two problems they discuss - rate shock and delayed tax refunds. But when you read their proposals for negotiating your way around these complications, you see that they are not so simple either. You almost need an accountant, though that is not affordable for most people who are eligible for premium subsidies because of their lower incomes.

According to the authors, “The next customer experience with new enrollments, renewals, and tax filings is the next big opportunity to reset public perception of the ACA.” And where will that reset of public perception land? In a sea of ACA complexities.

How would renewal under a single payer system compare to renewal in the ACA marketplaces? Renewal wouldn’t exist. Your initial enrollment is for life, not to mention that it is an exceedingly simple process - a matter of simply identifying who you are for purposes of enrollment.