In today’s guest post we welcome back Christine Speidel. Ms. Speidel is an attorney with the Vermont Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Office of the Health Care Advocate, both at Vermont Legal Aid. She has a particular interest in health care reform as it affects low-income taxpayers. Christine is the author of the 2016 update of the Affordable Care Act chapter of “Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS.” Keith
The 2017 tax filing season is underway, and tax professionals are wondering what effect President Trump’s recent executive orders will have on their clients. At the top of the list is the January 20 order regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The most frequent and persistent question about the order is whether taxpayers can ignore the shared responsibility provision on their 2016 tax returns. Preparers have also asked whether taxpayers still have to reconcile advance payments of the Premium Tax Credit for 2016.
As others have explained (e.g. Timothy Jost, Nicholas Bagley), the executive order changes nothing right now for taxpayers or health insurance consumers. It does not change taxpayers’ obligations on 2016 tax returns.
It is understandable that people reading the order could misunderstand its effects. The order contains very broad language. It directs federal executive departments and agencies (including HHS, Labor, and the Treasury) to “exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the Act that would impose a fiscal burden on any State or a cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden on individuals, families, healthcare providers, health insurers, patients, recipients of healthcare services, purchasers of health insurance, or makers of medical devices, products, or medications” within “the maximum extent permitted by law.” (Sec. 2.) The limiting clause is easy to skim over, but it is crucial.read more...
The federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) also limits the executive branch’s ability to quickly change federal regulations implementing the ACA. Indeed, the executive order recognizes that revision of existing regulations promulgated through notice-and-comment rulemaking must comply with the APA. (Sec. 5).
APA-compliant changes in federal rules cannot happen overnight. In implementing the laws passed by Congress, the executive branch may resolve ambiguities and fill in statutory gaps. However, when an agency changes its interpretation of a statute, for the new interpretation to have the force of law the agency must “display awareness that it is changing position and show that there are good reasons for the new policy.” Encino Motorcars v. Navarro, Slip op. at 9 (internal quotation marks omitted). It is easier to change federal agency interpretations that do not have the force of law (see Perez v. Mortgage Bankers), but the deference to be afforded those interpretations is a matter of hot debate and may ultimately depend on the future composition of the Supreme Court.
Some changes in ACA implementation could happen relatively quickly, but to date no concrete changes have been announced by the relevant federal agencies. Current federal law and regulations provide for flexibility and discretion in certain areas. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for example, has discretion to define hardship criteria for exemption from the individual shared responsibly provision. 45 C.F.R. § 155.605(d). HHS could broaden the hardship circumstances it recognizes, within the bounds of the current regulation. HHS has recognized additional hardships several times in the last few years, most recently last August. Also, anecdotal reports indicate that HHS’s view of applications claiming a non-listed hardship circumstance was more favorable in 2016 than it was in 2014. Case by case review is more consistent with the statutory and regulatory language than HHS’s initial, more limited approach. Expanded hardship exemptions can only go so far, though. A hardship exemption that effectively eliminates the penalty would conflict with Section 5000A.
There will certainly be legal debate over how far the Administration can go without a change in the law. The executive branch enjoys broad enforcement discretion, but that discretion is limited by the Constitution’s requirement that the President “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” (Art. II Sec. 3) Jonathan Adler’s essay discussing the limits of enforcement discretion is worth reading for those interested in this issue.
The Trump Administration may seek to rely on the Obama Administration’s delayed implementation of several ACA provisions (including the individual and employer mandates) as precedent allowing them to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation” of ACA provisions. Even if the Obama Administration’s implementation delays were lawful (which is debatable), it does not logically follow that a new Administration can “defer” or “delay” implementation of a provision three years after its actual implementation. This argument simply does not make sense for the individual shared responsibly provision or for premium tax credits. Not all provisions of the ACA have been fully implemented (such as the Cadillac Tax), and this argument may be more successful in those areas.
Given all the uncertainty, what can tax advisors and preparers do to help their clients?
First, no one should advise or assist a taxpayer to file a false tax return in the hopes that the law will not be enforced or will be changed at some future date. Even preparers who are not subject to Circular 230 face potential criminal charges under Section 7206(2) if they assist in the filing of a false tax return. Unhappy clients can be reminded that Congress passes the laws, and presidential executive orders do not change laws or regulations.
Taxpayers can file an extension if they prefer to wait and see whether Congressional or agency developments will affect their 2016 tax obligations.
Taxpayers who might qualify for a hardship exemption under the language of HHS’s regulation should be encouraged to apply. This is consistent with existing practice by consumer advocates. The regulatory language is broader than the specific hardship circumstances listed in guidance and on the healthcare.gov website. If an application is filed with HHS, a hardship exemption can be listed as “pending” on Form 8965.
The bottom line is that there are changes to come, but so far nothing has changed for tax year 2016 returns.