'Once Again Moving the Goalposts': Regs Give Obamacare Reprieves to Medium, Large Employers

WASHINGTON -- After news broke today that the Obama administration unilaterally decided to delay the health insurance mandate for medium-sized employers until 2016, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) tweeted a cartoon of a football refs moving the goalpost farther and farther away from the end zone.

"The Obama Administration once again moving the goalposts on #Obamacare," Hastings tweeted.

Beginning next year, businesses that employ 50 to 99 workers will have to report statistics to the government on how many employees are being offered or are receiving health insurance. These employers won't be assessed penalties on the non-insured until 2016, though. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are already exempt from the mandate.

Employers with 100 or more workers will be able to phase in coverage under the final regulations released today by the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service. Employers need to offer coverage to 70 percent of full-time workers in 2015 and 95 percent in 2016 and beyond to avoid being assessed fines starting next year.

“While about 96 percent of employers are not subject to the employer responsibility provision, for those employers that are, we will continue to make the compliance process simpler and easier to navigate,” said Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur.

The ruling also said "hours contributed by bona fide volunteers for a government or tax-exempt entity, such as volunteer firefighters and emergency responders, will not cause them to be considered full-time employees" for the purpose of Obamacare requirements and penalties, addressing one of the many controversies surrounding the law.

Republicans not only jumped on the latest midterm election cycle move, but called out the administration for not absolving ordinary Americans of the individual mandate penalties.

“This latest unilateral delay is further evidence that the healthcare law is hurting the economy. The White House is doing everything possible to hide the devastating impacts of this law until after the election," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). "While this may be a temporary break for employers, middle-class families will still be forced to prove they have expensive, government mandated insurance. After all the waivers and delays, Americans continue to ask, ‘What about me?’"

"Hard-working taxpayers have suffered for too long under the weight of the devastating impacts of President Obama’s signature healthcare law. Instead of focusing on short-term patches for insurance companies and corporations, it’s time for President Obama to delay the penalties that threaten millions of Americans instead," said Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (R-La.).

“Attempting to bail out some while abandoning the majority of Americans will not hide the failure of Obamacare. Laws are not made to be selectively enforced whenever the Obama Administration wants to try salvaging low poll numbers," Scalise added. "It is time for President Obama to admit his broken healthcare law has failed, and join with House Republicans to suspend the penalties and stop this train wreck before more hard-working families are harmed.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the administration’s "ad hoc implementation of Obamacare adds significant uncertainty to the economy and further hinders small businesses from expanding and creating jobs in the long run.”

“President Obama by himself is rewriting Obamacare one more time instead of working with Congress to repeal the mandate. It’s time to start over and go step by step with reforms that reduce the cost of healthcare so more Americans can afford to buy insurance," said the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

The news came as Alexander and Barrasso, as well as Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), signed on to a letter from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to the IRS commissioner asking the agency to clarify how it intends to enforce the individual mandate.

"Under the law, the IRS does not have the authority to file a notice of federal tax lien or bring forth criminal prosecutions in order to enforce the tax payment," Coburn wrote to IRS chief John Koskinen. "Please describe the methods the IRS intends to use to enforce payment of the tax. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) states 'it is possible that the IRS could present its claim when property is being sold and collect both the original penalty amount along with accrued interest and applicable penalties.' Does the IRS plan to do this?"

"Does the IRS anticipate taking the tax from a person’s refund would be an effective method for ensuring compliance with the individual mandate tax?… Does the IRS intend to enforce the tax on individuals who have been unable to access the HealthCare.gov or state exchange websites? Will individuals who completed all the steps to purchase health insurance, but were not enrolled due to a website error be required to pay the tax?" the letter continues.

If a taxpayer qualifies for one of the multiple, confusing exemptions under the law yet unknowingly pays the tax, "will the IRS refund the payment? How will the IRS verify the information provided regarding a person’s enrollment in a qualified health plan is accurate? In addition, if a person has a gap in coverage that is less than three months, they are not required to comply with the individual mandate. How does the IRS intend to verify the coverage gap did not exceed the three-month threshold?"

The lawmakers ask whether the IRS even has the manpower and infrastructure in place to enforce the mandate this year. They asked Koskinen to report back with answers within 15 days.

"Democrats may try hiding from President Obama on the campaign trail, but when it comes to his signature accomplishment, Obamacare, each Democrat senator up for re-election this year helped make it a reality," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

One of those Senate Dems campaigning to keep his job this fall, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), said the delay announced today came as a result of a letter he sent to Obama last summer asking for a 2-year postponement of the employer mandate penalties.

“As a small-business owner, I have repeatedly called for better protections for small businesses during the transition and implementation of the ACA,” Begich said. “Today’s announcement shows the Administration has heard my concerns. I want to make sure businesses have the time they need to make the transition to this new law without negative impacts to their bottom line or to their employees.  I am pleased the administration has heeded my request for these improvements.