IRS may not approve health insurance strategy

IRS may not approve health insurance strategy
June 04 01:00 2014

IRS may not approve health insurance strategy

When it came time to renew his company’s health plan last fall, Jerry Eledge found himself in a bind that many small-business owners know all too well.

On one hand, “it’s kind of a moral obligation” to offer insurance, said Eledge, who runs Community Quick Care, a growing chain of primary health care clinics in the Nashville area. And yet, premiums for his existing plan were going up 20 percent, while other group plans promised as much as a 50 percent increase, even as deductibles and copays were becoming less generous.

“We found no really good alternatives for 2014 at all,” he said. “Before Gary came along, we weren’t sure what we were going to do.”

Gary is Gary Adkins, an insurance agent in Brentwood, Tenn., who introduced Eledge to Zane Benefits, a company in Park City, Utah, that offers businesses an online claims reimbursement service. With help from Zane’s software, Eledge created a defined contribution plan for his company. The system has obvious appeal.

It largely frees the company from the headaches of arranging health coverage by reimbursing employees for insurance they buy on their own. At the same time, it allows the company to help its employees find affordable, often cheaper, options on the individual market through Zane. And, importantly, it promises that the contribution the company makes to its employees’ coverage is tax-free for the employees and excluded from payroll taxes for the employer.

That, however, is a promise that Zane Benefits may not be able to keep.

In a technical guidance issued last year and reiterated last month, the Internal Revenue Service issued a clear warning about such health reimbursement arrangements, according to eight health and tax lawyers as well a half-dozen lobbyists and analysts who have followed the Affordable Care Act’s adoption. The guidance “makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for an employer to pay for an employee’s individual insurance with tax-free dollars,” said Seth Perretta, a health and tax lawyer with the Groom Law Group in Washington.

The issue, at least on the surface, is language in the health law meant to make sure there are no dollar limits on the coverage for a person’s basic medical needs, which the law calls essential health benefits. The IRS asserts that a plan reimbursing employees for insurance they buy on their own cannot comply with this prohibition on annual limits because the company’s contribution is by definition limited — even though the health insurance the employee ends up buying would have no annual limits.

The president of Zane Benefits, Rick Lindquist, 29, said the prohibition on limits did not apply to Zane’s plan because premiums were not an essential health benefit.

“We’ve designed an arrangement that takes into account the guidance, and complies with the statutes and regulations as written,” he said.

Before this year, most companies that wanted to make sure their employees had insurance had little choice but to select and manage the plans because they could not be certain their employees would be able to obtain insurance individually. Now, as the Affordable Care Act creates more options on the individual market, the question of whether to continue offering health insurance has intensified, especially for small businesses.

And Zane Benefits is emerging as the leader of a handful of companies — including TASC, HR Simplified, and Freedom Services — hoping to facilitate that transition. According to Lindquist, about 2,600 small businesses use Zane’s software to create and manage health reimbursement arrangements, as these plans are commonly called — lured at least in part by the tax exclusion.

Community Quick Care pays Zane $12 a month for each of its 30 employees to administer the plan. Adkins estimates that employees can buy their own plan for as much as 40 percent less than the same coverage would cost as part of a group. Should they receive government subsidies to buy that insurance — and Eledge estimated up to a quarter of his employees qualify — the savings to the employer can double, Adkins said.

Lawyers following the issue called Zane’s approach risky at best.

“It is abundantly clear that the IRS thinks that you cannot use one of these arrangements to use tax-free dollars to pay for individual health insurance,” said Amy B. Monahan, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

But Perretta said the Zane plan exploited a weakness in the guidance, which does not specify whether insurance premiums are an essential benefit.

“The Zane arrangement tries to thread a needle,” he said. “It really lives or dies on that ambiguity.”

Elsewhere, he added, the IRS and other agencies have implied that a premium is not an essential health benefit, so for now, Perretta said, the Zane plan could be legal, “but regulators don’t like it.”

Officials from the Treasury Department and the IRS declined to answer questions about the regulations or Zane’s plan, but a Treasury Department official wrote in an e-mailed statement, “This type of reimbursement plan generally would fail to comply with the ACA’s prohibition on annual dollar limits.”

The Treasury official said the government planned to issue further guidance on the matter. But ultimately, it may be up to one of Zane’s clients to persuade a court that the arrangements are legal. The penalty for an employer violating the market reform rules is $100 a day, or $36,500 a year, for each affected employee, although never more $500,000 total.

Lindquist said his agents walked clients through all of the legal risks, but he was confident the plan would withstand scrutiny.

“If we were worried about that, we wouldn’t offer it,” he said.

Adkins, the insurance agent, said he told his 150 small-business clients who had adopted Zane’s software that they had little to fear.

“The purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to get people covered in this country,” he said. “Do you really believe the government is going to penalize that small-businessman $36,000 a year per employee because he had the heart to actually help his employees get as much coverage as they could get?”

And Eledge, of Community Quick Care, said Adkins satisfied him, and his accountant, that the plan would stand up.

“We like it very clear that everything we do as a company is aboveboard and legal,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who says, ‘IRS, come get me.’ ”

Read full story at Boston Globe
write a comment


No Comments Yet!

You can be the one to start a conversation.

Add a Comment