ACA Prohibits Employer Paying Individual Health Premiums For Employees, IRS Says Again

Employers cannot pay for or reimburse employees for any portion of the cost for the employee to buy individual health insurance coverage for himself or his family from a Health Insurance Exchange or “Marketplace” established as part of the health care reforms of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA) or otherwise.  That’s the message of new IRS Notice 2015-17. Employers that since 2013 have paid for or reimbursed employers for individual health insurance costs through a cafeteria plan or otherwise in 2014 should contact qualified legal counsel experienced in the health plan rules of ACA and federal health plan rules to discuss their practice, the extent to which any payments or reimbursements previously paid can qualify for special temporary relief granted to small employers under IRS Notice 2015-17, and what if any corrective action the employer needs to take to correct any compliance concerns associated with current or prior year’s practice of paying for or reimbursing individual health policy costs.

Although certain brokers and consultants continue to aggressively promote arrangements under which employers pay for or reimburse employees for individual health policy premiums as a way for employers to circumvent some of the challenges for employers of offering health coverage to employees under the group health plan rules of ACA, the IRS, DOL and HHS have made clear since early 2013 that they view such practices as prohibited by ACA’s Market Reforms, regardless of whether the payment or reimbursement is done on a pre-tax or after-tax basis, or done through a formal “plan” or through any other employer payment plan or arrangement.  See FAQs About Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XI) issued by the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) on January 24, 2013; Notice 2013-54 and DOL Technical Release 2013-03 issued on September 13, 2013; IRS FAQ on Employer Healthcare Arrangements; and FAQs About Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XXII) issued by DOL  and HHS on November 6, 2014.

While reaffirming the IRS, HHS and DOL’s previous guidance indicating that ACA’s Market reforms prohibit employer payment plans, Notice 2015-17 also:

  • Announces temporary transitional relief from excise tax penalties under Code § 4980D for certain arrangements maintained by qualifying small employers that maintained such arrangements in 2014.
  • Provides additional guidance on the tax treatment of employer payment plans; and
  • Supplements and clarifies the guidance provided in Notice 2013-54 and other guidance about ACA’s prohibition of employer payment plans.

In light of this guidance, any employer currently maintaining such arrangement immediately should consult with qualified legal counsel within the scope of attorney-client privilege about their arrangement, among other things to evaluate:

  • The legality of the existing and proposed arrangements and their liability and other implications on the employer’s compliance with ACA and resulting liabilities and responsibilities resulting therefrom in light of the additional guidance on the tax treatment of such arrangements set forth in Notice 2015-17, as well as previously published IRS and other Tri-Agencies guidance about employer payment plans; and
  • Whether any action needs to be taken to address any potential violation of Tri-Agency rules resulting from the arrangement.

When conducting this evaluation, employers and others  should use care not to over-estimate the scope of the temporary relief announced in Notice 2015-17.  First, the relief announced in 2015-17 only applies for the 2014 tax year for certain small employers from the self-reporting and excise tax liability provisions of Internal Revenue Code (Code) § 4980D for failure to satisfy market reforms in relation to the specific arrangements detailed in Notice 2015-17.  In this respect, Notice 2015-17’s transition relief only applies for the 2014 tax year to employer healthcare arrangements that are :

  • Employer payment plans, as described in Notice 2013-54, if the plan is sponsored by an employer that is not an Applicable Large Employer (ALE) under Code § 4980H(c)(2) and §§54.4980H-1(a)(4) and -2;
  • S corporation healthcare arrangements for 2-percent shareholder-employees;
  • Medicare premium reimbursement arrangements; and
  • TRICARE-related health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

When evaluating an existing, previous or proposed employer payment arrangement, employers and others involved should consider taking steps to arrange for their discussions and evaluations to be conducted in a manner that positions the party or parties to be able to claim attorney-client privilege of the discussions and to protect such privileges against waiver to the extent possible.  In this respect, employers and others involved in such arrangements should be cognizant that certain evidentiary privileges such as accountant-client privilege that sometimes might apply for certain tax representation purposes may provide less reliable evidentiary discovery protection than attorney-client privileges under the circumstances as  discussions with accountants or other non-attorney consultants or advisors typically do not generally provide protection like attorney-client privilege in non-tax civil litigation by private plaintiffs or enforcement actions by certain of the Tri-Agencies of potential violations of the ACA Market Reform prohibition.

ACA’s prohibition against employer payment of individual health insurance policy premiums is only one of an ever-growing list of ACA and other federal health plan rules that employers and other group health plan sponsors and their plans must meet.  Many of these rules also fall under a Sarbanes-Oxley style provision of the Code that requires most employers to evaluate and maintain their health plan’s compliance with the applicable rule or self-report and self-assess and pay the applicable penalty for the violation when filing their health plan’s annual Form 5500.  With the 2014 plan year Form 5500 filing deadline rapidly approaching, employers and their health plan fiduciaries, insurer and vendors will want to act quickly to review, identify and develop a plan with legal counsel to address any potential concerns with the market reform and other requirements of federal law promptly.

For Advice, Training & Other Resources

If your business need legal advice about the your health or other employee benefit or human resources practices, assistance assessing or resolving potential past or existing compliance exposures, or monitoring and responding to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, an ABA Joint Committee On Employee Benefits Council representative, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, ABA, and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years’ experience advising health plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health plans and insurers about ACA, and a wide range of other plan design, administration, data security and privacy and other compliance risk management policies.  Ms. Stamer also regularly represents clients and works with Congress and state legislatures, EBSA, IRS, EEOC, OCR and other HHS agencies, state insurance and other regulators, and others.   She also publishes and speaks extensively on health and other employee benefit plan and insurance, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, privacy, regulatory and public policy and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile or by registering to receive these and other updates here.  Recent examples of these updates include:

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NOTE:  This article is provided for educational purposes.  It is does not establish any attorney-client relationship nor provide or serve as a substitute for legal advice to any individual or organization.  Readers must engage properly qualified legal counsel to secure legal advice about the rules discussed in light of specific circumstances.

The following disclaimer is included to ensure that we comply with U.S. Treasury Department Regulations.  The Regulations now require that either we (1) include the following disclaimer in most written Federal tax correspondence or (2) undertake significant due diligence that we have not performed (but can perform on request).


©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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