HHS Nominee Vows To Tackle High Drug Costs, Despite His Ties To Industry

What is President Trump’s solution for fighting high drug prices? From Kaiser Health News, check out this article on the new Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee.


Senate Democrats on Tuesday pressed President Donald Trump’s nominee for the top health post to explain how he would fight skyrocketing drug prices — demanding to know why they should trust him to lower costs since he did not do so while running a major pharmaceutical company.

Alex M. Azar II, the former president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Trump’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, presented himself as a “problem solver” eager to fix a poorly structured health care system during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Azar said addressing drug costs would be among his top priorities.

But armed with charts showing how some of Eli Lilly’s drug prices had doubled on Azar’s watch, Democrats argued Azar was part of the problem. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the committee’s top Democrat, said Azar had never authorized a decrease in a drug price as a pharmaceutical executive.

“The system is broken,” Wyden said. “Mr. Azar was a part of that system.”

Azar countered that the nation’s pharmaceutical drug system is structured to encourage companies to raise prices, a problem he said he would work to fix as head of HHS.

“I don’t know that there is any drug price of a brand-new product that has ever gone down from any company on any drug in the United States, because every incentive in this system is towards higher prices, and that is where we can do things together, working as the government to get at this,” he said. “No one company is going to fix that system.”

Azar’s confirmation hearing Tuesday was his second appearance before senators as the nominee to lead HHS. In November, he faced similar questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee during a courtesy hearing.

If confirmed, Azar would succeed Tom Price, Trump’s first health secretary, who resigned in September amid criticism over his frequent use of taxpayer-paid charter flights. A former Republican congressman who was a dedicated opponent of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Price had a frosty relationship with Democrats in Congress as he worked with Republicans to try to undo the law.

Price and the Trump administration often turned to regulations and executive orders to undermine the Affordable Care Act, since Republicans in Congress repeatedly failed to enact a repeal. “Repeal and replace” has been the president’s mantra.

But at the hearing, Azar was circumspect about his approach, noting that his job would be to work under existing law. “The Affordable Care Act is there,” he said, adding that it would fall to him to make it work “as best as it possibly can.”

Senate Republicans touted Azar’s nearly six years working for the department under President George W. Bush, including two years as a deputy secretary. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) praised Azar’s “extraordinary résumé,” adding that, among HHS nominees, he was “probably the most qualified I’ve seen in my whole term in the United States Senate.” Hatch, who is the longest-serving Republican senator in history, has been a senator for more than 40 years.

In addition to drug costs, Azar vowed to focus on the nation’s growing opioid crisis, calling for “aggressive prevention, education, regulatory and enforcement efforts to stop overprescribing and overuse,” as well as “compassionate treatment” for those suffering from addiction.

Pressed about Republican plans to cut entitlement spending to compensate for budget shortfalls, Azar said he was “not aware” of support within the Trump administration for such cuts.

“The president has stated his opposition to cuts to Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security,” Azar said. “He said that in the campaign, and I believe he has remained steadfast in his views on that.”

But Democrats pushed back, pointing out that Trump had proposed Medicaid cuts in his budget request last year. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said such cuts would hurt those receiving treatment for opioid addiction.

“What happens to these people?” he said.

Despite such Democratic criticism, Azar is likely to be confirmed when the full Senate votes on his nomination. An HHS spokesman Tuesday pointed reporters to an editorial in STAT supporting Azar, written by former Senate majority leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle — a Republican and a Democrat. “We need a person of integrity and competence at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services,” they wrote. “The good news is that President Trump has nominated just such a person, Alex Azar.”

Read further.

Source:

HR leaders rate ACA concerns as a lower-tier issue

Originally posted by Michael Giardina on http://ebn.benefitnews.com

New research from a North American sample of HR leaders finds that the Affordable Care Act is not a primary concern among employers, even as the landmark health care law continues to worry the masses.

Roughly half of the 358 individuals surveyed in the Human Capital Institute’s new report disclose being “very much prepared” or “quite a bit prepared” to take on the unknown future environment being forged by the ACA. The participants surveyed include human resource professionals, executive management or those working in a recruiting function.

Forty percent of the sample highlight that they are neutral or cannot judge the ACA, according to HCI’s Talent Pulse, a quarterly research e-book that tracks new talent management trends.

“We found that most HR professionals express neutral attitudes about Obamacare, suggesting that they need more information or time to better understand its impact,” says Jenna Filipkowski, PhD, a senior research analyst at HCI.

Even more peculiar is that only 15% of organizations are worried about cutting employee hours. Previously, the industry was reeling over the most recent employer mandate delay, as many pointed to shifting employee hours could alleviate the law’s restrictions but limit recruitment of needed talent. Other options have been to delay the stiff individual penalties through legislation.

The Talent Pulse report finds that 88% of the surveyed population understands the law, while 91.5% are adhering to compliance and regulations and 88.6% have communicated these changes to employees. However, HCI mandates that HR executives are concerned with the impending excise tax, or Cadillac tax, which will roll out in 2018.

In order to address additional concerns, participants’ surveyed state that they are looking to increase their communication and education, utilize external expert consultations and adding or adjusting their benefits package.

The strategic talent management organization finds that tracking employee hours has been confusing for some and others even question whether the law will be around for the long term.

“What is nerve racking to some extent is the unforeseen,” says one respondent. “Will the Act still be around next year or after the next election?”

 

 


With a $2,000 deductible Is the Affordable Care Act 'affordable'?

Original article from http://money.cnn.com

By Tami Luhby

Until now, much of the debate swirling around the Affordable Care Act has focused on the cost of premiums in the state-based health insurance exchanges. But what will enrollees actually get for that monthly charge?

States are starting to roll out details about the exchanges, providing a look at just how affordable coverage under the Affordable Care Act will be. Some potential participants may be surprised at the figures: $2,000 deductibles, $45 primary care visit co-pays, and $250 emergency room tabs.

Those are just some of the charges enrollees will incur in a silver-level plan in California, which recently unveiled an overview of the benefits and charges associated with its exchange. That's on top of the $321 average monthly premium.

For some, this will be great news since it will allow them to see the doctor without breaking the bank. But others may not want to shell out a few thousand bucks in addition to a monthly premium.

"The hardest question is will it be a good deal and will consumers be able to afford it," said Marian Mulkey, director of the health reform initiative at the California Healthcare Foundation. "The jury is still out. It depends on their circumstances."

A quick refresher on Obamacare: People who don't have affordable health insurance through their employers will be able to sign up for coverage through state-based exchanges. Enrollment is set to begin in October, with coverage taking effect in January. You must have some form of coverage next year, or you will face annual penalties of $95 or 1% of family income (whichever is greater) initially and more in subsequent years.

Each state will offer four levels of coverage: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Platinum plans come with the highest premiums, but lowest out-of-pocket expenses, while bronze plans carry lower monthly charges but require more cost-sharing. Gold and silver fall in the middle.

The federal government will offer premium subsidies to those with incomes of up to four times the federal poverty level. This year, that's $45,960 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four. There will be additional help to cover out-of-pocket expenses for those earning less than 250% of the poverty line: $28,725 for a single person and $58,875 for a family of four. The subsidies are tied to the cost of the state's silver level plans.

Related: I'm signing up for Obamacare

California offers insight into how much participants will actually have to pay under Obamacare. The state, unlike most others, is requiring insurers to offer a standard set of benefits and charges in each plan level. The only variables are monthly premiums, doctor networks and carriers in your area.

For those in need of frequent medical care, the platinum or gold plans would reduce out-of-pocket costs for treatment. These plans have no deductible, and doctors' visits and medication are cheaper. But the trade-off is that they have higher monthly premiums. California has not yet released the premium range for these tiers.

On the flip side, a young man who never visits the doctor and wants to minimize his monthly charge could opt for a bronze plan. A 40-year-old enrolling in this plan could pay as little as $219 a month. But, if he did get sick, he'd get socked with a $5,000 deductible, $60 co-pays for primary care visits and a $300 emergency room charge.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides protection for those who need a lot of care by placing a cap on out-of-pocket expenses. The maximum a person in an individual platinum plan will spend a year is $4,000, while those in the other tiers will shell out no more than $6,400.

"Insurance is expensive. It's hard for anyone who isn't well off to afford it," said Gary Claxton, director of the health care marketplace project at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "But it is good enough that you can afford to get sick without bankrupting yourself."

Whether potential enrollees find these plans affordable will depend on how healthy they are and whether they are currently insured.

Many individual insurance offerings currently available come with much higher deductibles, cover fewer expenses and limits on how much they'll pay out in a year. Plans on the exchange, on the other hand, are required to cover a variety of "essential benefits," including maternity care, mental health services and medication.

"In many cases, depending on the plan, the coverage will be more comprehensive than what the enrollee currently has," said Anne Gonzalez, a spokeswoman with Covered California, which is running the state's exchange.

 


Workers wildly unprepared for health care changes

Original article http://ebn.benefitnews.com

By Tristan Lejeune

The third annual Aflac WorkForces Report, released last week, reveals a sobering gap in employee readiness to handle and take on the shift toward consumer-driven health plans and defined contribution health. A majority of workers (54%) would prefer not to have more control over their insurance options, citing a lack of time and information to manage it effectively, and 72% have never even heard the phrase “consumer-driven health care.”

Aflac and Research Now surveyed 1,884 benefits leaders and 5,229 wage-earners and found arresting disconnects in their expectations, plans and views of the future. For example, 62% of employees think their medical costs will increase, but only 23% are saving money for those hikes. A full three-quarters of the workforce think their employer will educate them about changes to their health care coverage as a result of reform, but only 13% of employers say educating employees about health care reform is important to their organization.

“It may be referred to as ‘consumer-driven health care,’ but in actuality, consumers aren’t the ones driving these changes, so it’s no surprise that many feel unprepared,” says Audrey Boone Tillman, executive vice president of corporate services at Aflac. “The bottom line is if consumers aren’t educated about the full scope of their options, they risk making costly mistakes without a financial back-up plan.”

Aflac reports what many benefits leaders instinctively know: Consumersalready find health insurance decisions intimidating and don’t welcome increased responsibility. Fifty-three percent fear they might mismanage their coverage, leaving their families less protected than they are now. And significant ignorance remains: Plan participants are not very or not at all knowledgeable about flex spending accounts (25%), health savings accounts (32%), health reimbursement accounts (49%) or federal or state health care exchanges (76%).

According to Aflac, 53% of employers have introduced a high-deductible health plan over the past three years, and that trend shows no sign of slowing. Yet more than half of workers have done nothing to prepare for changes from HDHPs, the Affordable Care Act or other system shifts.

“It’s time for consumers to face reality,” Tillman says. “Ready or not, they are being put in control of their health insurance decisions – and that means having to make choices that could have a big impact on personal finances. If employers aren’t offering guidance to workers on how to make crucial benefits decisions, the responsibility lies in the hands of consumers to educate themselves.”

 


How should insurers pay their PPACA fees?

Original article http://www.benefitspro.com

By Allison Bell

A team at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners is trying to figure out how health insurers should get the cash to pay billions of dollars in Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act fees.

The team -- the Health Care Reform Regulatory Alternatives Working Group -- has come up with five ways insurers could handle the fact that the new PPACA fees are supposed to kick in on Jan. 1.

The working group has described the options in a rough draft of a discussion paper posted on the Health Actuarial Task Force section of the NAIC's website. The NAIC created the group to give regulators from states that are skeptical about PPACA a way to share ideas about how to cope with the law. The discussion paper drafters used estimates from the American Action Forum, a group that opposes PPACA, in the paper draft.

The new PPACA fees could cost health insurers $20 billion in 2014 -- an amount equal to about 3 percent of their revenue, the drafters said, citing the American Action Forum figures.

The drafters talked only about the mechanics of how insurers should handle the fees, not their views about whether insurers should have to pay the fees.

Because the PPACA fees resemble excise taxes, "it seems legitimate for an insurer to include such fees in the premium," the drafters wrote in the paper. "Then the question is when an insurer should reflect the fees in the premium.

The drafters list the following options:

  • Have insurers file rates that extend for the entire 12-month policy year. An insurer could include a portion of the PPACA fees payable in 2014 starting on the policy anniversary in 2013.
  • Have insurers file rates that extend for the entire 12-month policy year, with no inclusion of PPACA fees in 2013. Let the insurers bill for PPACA fees separately starting Jan. 1, 2014.
  • Have insurers file rates that extend for the entire 12-month policy year. Don't let insurers include PPACA fees in the 2013 premium rates but let the insurers have their rates change to reflect the new fees on Jan. 1, 2014.
  • Have insurers file rates that extend only until Dec. 31, 2013, with no inclusion of PPACA fees. Require the insurers to submit new filings for rates effective on Jan. 1, 2014.
  • Prohibit insurers from including PPACA fees in their rates until the first policy anniversary that occurs on or after Jan. 1, 2014.

 

 


Most States Fail Transparency Scorecard

Original article http://ebn.benefitnews.com

Thirty-six of the nation's 50 states received either a "D" or an "F" in a report card, issued by two nonprofit organizations, measuring the strength of health care price transparency laws.

"We know from studies that the price for an identical health care procedure performed in the same city can vary by as much as 700%, with no difference in quality," said Francois de Brantes, executive director of Health Care Incentives Improvement Initiative, or HCI3. "When consumers shop for value, they can help rein in health care costs; but to do this, they first need timely and actionable price information."

Burden placed on consumer

The report card, developed by Catalyst for Payment Reform and HCI3, examined multiple factors in arriving at a 100-point scale.

Those factors include levels of price transparency such as:

* Pricing information reported to the state only.

* Pricing information available upon request by an individual consumer.

* Pricing information available in a public report.

* Pricing information available via a public website.

The report card also measured scoring criteria by scope, including:

* Scope of price, including charges, average charge, amount paid by the insurer and amount paid by the consumer (allowed amount).

* Scope of services covered under the law, including all medical services, inpatient services only, outpatient services only, or the most common inpatient and outpatient services.

* Scope of providers affected by the law, including hospitals, physicians and surgical centers.

The groups calculated a score for each level separately and then factored a sum for a total score out of 100 possible points. Every state received a cumulative additive score, taking into account all relevant laws passed in that state. Thus, grades do not reflect individual statutes or bills, but rather each state's overall legislative effort toward price transparency for health care.

The sponsors of the report say the majority of states have very basic laws requiring average charges to be made public, but charges do not reflect what consumers, employers and health plans actually end up paying for care. In many cases, the information is only available upon request, placing a considerable burden on the consumer.

States have duty to protect

"It should be concerning to every lawmaker in the country that 18% of the U.S. economy is shrouded in mystery," de Brantes said. "Without price information, how can we possibly expect consumers to act in a value-conscious way? It is a duty of every state to protect its residents from unfair trade practices, and healthcare consumers are, for the most part, completely left to fend for themselves."

 

This story originally appeared in Health Data Management, a SourceMedia publication.

 


States Fear Loss of Health Care Aid

Original article http://www.benefitspro.com

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Thousands of people with serious medical problems are in danger of losing coverage under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul because of cost overruns, state officials say.

At risk is the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, a transition program that's become a lifeline for the so-called "uninsurables" — people with serious medical conditions who can't get coverage elsewhere. The program helps bridge the gap for those people until next year, when under the new law insurance companies will be required to accept people regardless of their medical problems.

In a letter this week to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, state officials said they were "blindsided" and "very disappointed" by a federal proposal they contend would shift the risk for cost overruns to states in the waning days of the program. About 100,000 people are currently covered.

"We are concerned about what will become of our high risk members' access to this decent and affordable coverage," wrote Michael Keough, chairman of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans. States and local nonprofits administer the program in 21 states, and the federal government runs the remaining plans.

"Enrollees also appear to be at risk of increases in both premiums and out-of-pocket costs that may make continued enrollment cost prohibitive," added Keough, who runs North Carolina's program. He warned of "large-scale enrollee terminations at this critical transition time."

The crisis is surfacing at a politically awkward time for the Obama administration, which is trying to persuade states to embrace a major expansion of Medicaid under the health care law. It may undercut one of the main arguments proponents of the expansion are making: that Washington is a reliable financial partner.

The root of the problem is that the federal health care law capped spending on the program at $5 billion, and the money is running out because the beneficiaries turned out to be costlier to care for than expected. Advanced heart disease and cancer are common diagnoses for the group.

Obama did not ask for any additional funding for the program in his latest budget, and a Republican bid to keep the program going by tapping other funds in the health care law failed to win support in the House last week.

There was no immediate response from HHS, which has given the state-based program until next Wednesday to respond to proposed contract terms for the program's remaining seven months.

Delivered last Friday, the new contract stipulated that states will be reimbursed "up to a ceiling."

"The 'ceiling' part is the issue for us," Keough said in an interview. "They are shifting the risk from the federal government, for a program that has experienced huge cost overruns on a per-member basis, to states. And that's a tall order."

At his news conference this week, Obama acknowledged the rollout of his health care law wouldn't be perfect. There will be "glitches and bumps" he said, and his team is committed to working through them. However, it's unclear how the program could get more money without the cooperation of Republicans in Congress.

The pre-existing conditions plan was intended only as a stopgap. The law's main push to cover the uninsured starts next year, with subsidized private insurance available through new state-based markets, as well as an expanded version of Medicaid for low-income people. At the same time, virtually all Americans will be required to carry a policy, or pay a fine.

States are free to accept or reject the Medicaid expansion, and the new problems with the stopgap insurance plan could well have a bearing on their decisions.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Health law’s mandate, tax credit could help or hurt employers

Original article http://www.upi.com

By Andrew Hedlund – Medill News Service

Business owners view the new health care law through many different paradigms. Some see it as onerous, while others find it helpful. Research suggests that one of its most contentious provisions, the employer mandate, will have minimal impact.

Joe Olivo is a small business owner who finds the new health care law costly and confusing, particularly next year’s employer mandate. Mark Hodesh is a small business owner who finds the law to be a boon to his business.

Some business owners like Hodesh, the owner of Downtown Home and Garden in Ann Arbor, Mich., qualify for the tax credit, which is available to businesses with fewer than 25 employees to offer health insurance, and do not worry about the mandate, which only kicks in at the 50-employee mark.

Others like Olivo, who is a co-owner of Perfect Printing in Morristown, N.J., do not qualify for the credit and say the requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance or face fines prevents them from growing.

Starting next year, employers that have 50 or more workers that are full-time, defined in the law as those working more than 30 hours a week, are required to provide coverage for their workers. For those with fewer than 25 employees, they receive a tax credit now of 35 percent of the cost of their employee health insurance costs, and that will increase to 50 percent next year. According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 90 percent of businesses had fewer than 50 employees.

Olivo’s business has 40 full-time employees and offers health insurance. With that number of full-time workers, he will not be subject to the mandate, but it gives him pause when deciding whether to expand the business.

In fact, Olivo is purposely avoiding hitting the 50-employee mark. Any new employees he hires work on a part-time basis. This decision is rooted in the uncertainty surrounding health care costs.

“If I see premiums are not going through the roof,” he said, “and I see there is a stable known situation where I can reasonably expect what will happen, I will have a better incentive to take the risk with my money and grow.”

What he has seen so far is not promising though, he said.

“(What) we’ve already started to see is how the regulation, the amount of work, for a company just under 50 employees,” Olivo said, “that we have to decide to make sure we’re in compliance — start looking at our employee’s hours, making sure we don’t go over the 50 mark because of the severe ramifications,” referring to law’s penalty of $2,000 per employee for any companies with 50 or more employees that don’t provide health insurance. The penalty would not apply to the first 30 employees.

Olivo also said the lack of finality in the IRS’s rules further confuses employers as 2014 draws closer. The agency will hold a public hearing on this provision Tuesday.

However, research on similar employer requirements in San Francisco and Massachusetts by the Urban Institute, National Bureau of Economic Research and the National Opinion Research Center found that the notion the requirement to provide insurance would lead to job loss or could lead to fewer employers offering health insurance was overstated.

In fact, the National Opinion Research Center found in its 2008 study that businesses with three or more employees offering health insurance in Massachusetts increased from 73 percent to 79 percent, though employers were less inclined to consider terminating coverage than national companies.

A study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, based on San Francisco’s efforts, employers nationwide will be less likely to choose the penalty option of this requirement because the Affordable Care Act lacks a public option. San Francisco does offer the equivalent of a public option, which some employers may find preferable.

Elise Gould, a health care economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said she expects the effects of the employer mandate to be minimal.

“I don’t think that it is going to lead to much job loss,” she said. “There may be some shifting in hours to avoid the mandate. I think that would be small though.”

Gould also added that she expects employers to take many different factors into account when considering expansion, with the insurance requirement being just one small factor.

The law attempts to aid small businesses with tax credits as well, though several restrictions come with them: firms must have fewer than 25 employees and pay them less than $50,000 in wages each year, meaning Olivo’s business is ineligible for a credit while Hodesh’s business qualifies.

He met the requirements and received a tax credit, allowing him to hire another employee.

Hodesh has 12 employees so he doesn’t need to worry about crossing the mandate’s 50-employee threshold soon.

“There are pluses and minuses to all issues,” Hodesh said. “And I think that people are focusing on the minus side of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. They are missing out on all the positives of the law.”

Offering health insurance to his employees is also an important strategy for his store.

“We provide health care as a business tool,” Hodesh said. “We attract and keep good long-term employees, and we don’t have high turnover and we don’t have to train a lot.”

Starting around 2000, though, his company’s health care costs tripled, but the tax credit eased that cost.

“(The credit) gave us the confidence to hire a new person,” he said. “It’s a good deal for me.”

 


To Open Eyes, W-2s List Cost of Providing a Health Plan

Source: http://www.nytimes.com
By Robert Pear

As workers open their W-2 forms this month, many will see a new box with information on the total cost of employer-sponsored health insurance coverage. To some, it will be a surprise, perhaps even a shock.

Workers often have little idea how much they and their employers are paying for coverage. In many cases, economists say, workers give up cash compensation to get and keep health benefits.

The disclosures, required by the 2010 health care law, are meant to make workers more cost-conscious. Health benefits are still tax-free. But labor unions and employer groups say it could be easier to tax them in the future, now that employers must report their value to the government.

The new information appears in Box 12 of the standard W-2 form, with a two-letter code, DD. The box shows the “cost of employer-sponsored health coverage.” And that amount is not taxable, the Internal Revenue Service says on the back of the form.

Jay J. Makled, a union steward for the United Automobile Workers at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich., described his reaction after seeing that his health coverage cost nearly $16,000 last year: “It’s quite expensive. I was surprised to see how much the company was paying for that benefit.”

Hourly employees represented by the union there said they generally did not pay any of the premium.

The number on the W-2 form is supposed to reflect the part of the cost paid by the employer and the part paid by the employee.

Prof. Nicole Huberfeld, an expert on health law at the University of Kentucky, who received her W-2 form on Monday, said, “Most people who get health insurance from their employers have no idea how much it costs.”

“People are often shocked when they see the cost, $12,000 to $16,000 a year,” Ms. Huberfeld said. “Many Americans believe this is something they get free. But employers pay lower wages because they provide insurance.”

In 2012, according to an annual survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance averaged $5,615 a year for single coverage and $15,745 for family coverage. Over five years, the costs have increased 25 percent for individual coverage and 30 percent for family coverage.

“Health coverage is a big piece of people’s income and a large part of the social welfare budget,” said C. Eugene Steuerle, a tax economist at the Urban Institute. “But the benefits are not taxable, and most of the spending is hidden, so we don’t consider the trade-offs. If we want to get control of health care costs, people have to be aware of them.”

That is the goal of the disclosure requirement, which was proposed by a bipartisan group of senators: two Republicans, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, and two Democrats, Max Baucus of Montana and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Congress acted after Peter R. Orszag, then the director of the Congressional Budget Office, told lawmakers: “The economic evidence is overwhelming, the theory is overwhelming, that when your firm pays for your health insurance, you actually pay through reduced take-home pay. The firm is not giving that to you for free.”

The tax-free treatment of employer-provided health benefits is the largest tax break in the tax code, costing the government roughly $180 billion a year in lost revenue, or 80 percent more than the home mortgage interest deduction, according to the administration.

Katie W. Mahoney, the executive director of health policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “It’s useful for employees to know the value of coverage their employers provide.” But she said some employers worried that reporting the benefit on the W-2 form could lead to taxing the benefit.

“That’s not the intent of the current requirement,” Ms. Mahoney said. “But once the information is collected by the government, it’s very easy for another administration to have a different intent.”

An employee of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. whose health coverage was listed as costing more than $20,000 said: “That knocks my socks off. When I saw the number, my eyes popped out. I appreciate my employer all the more.”

The employee said he had been told not to discuss the cost publicly because the union did not want to suggest that some employees had “Cadillac coverage.”

An employer that fails to comply with the reporting requirement could be subject to penalties of $200 per W-2 form, up to a maximum of $3 million, tax lawyers said.

Employers are exempt from the reporting obligation if they are required to file fewer than 250 W-2 forms, the I.R.S. said. That could change, but the agency said employers would be given at least six months’ notice.

 


New Taxes to Take Effect to Fund Health Care Law

By ROBERT PEAR
Source: nytimes.com

WASHINGTON — For more than a year, politicians have been fighting over whether to raise taxes on high-income people. They rarely mention that affluent Americans will soon be hit with new taxes adopted as part of the 2010 health care law.

The new levies, which take effect in January, include an increase in thepayroll tax on wages and a tax on investment income, including interest, dividends and capital gains. The Obama administration proposed rules to enforce both last week.

Affluent people are much more likely than low-income people to havehealth insurance, and now they will, in effect, help pay for coverage for many lower-income families. Among the most affluent fifth of households, those affected will see tax increases averaging $6,000 next year, economists estimate.

To help finance Medicare, employees and employers each now pay a hospital insurance tax equal to 1.45 percent on all wages. Starting in January, the health care law will require workers to pay an additional tax equal to 0.9 percent of any wages over $200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The new taxes on wages and investment income are expected to raise $318 billion over 10 years, or about half of all the new revenue collected under the health care law.

Ruth M. Wimer, a tax lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery, said the taxes came with “a shockingly inequitable marriage penalty.” If a single man and a single woman each earn $200,000, she said, neither would owe any additional Medicare payroll tax. But, she said, if they are married, they would owe $1,350. The extra tax is 0.9 percent of their earnings over the $250,000 threshold.

Since the creation of Social Security in the 1930s, payroll taxes have been levied on the wages of each worker as an individual. The new Medicare payroll is different. It will be imposed on the combined earnings of a married couple.

Employers are required to withhold Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes from wages paid to employees. But employers do not necessarily know how much a worker’s spouse earns and may not withhold enough to cover a couple’s Medicare tax liability. Indeed, the new rules say employers may disregard a spouse’s earnings in calculating how much to withhold.

Workers may thus owe more than the amounts withheld by their employers and may have to make up the difference when they file tax returns in April 2014. If they expect to owe additional tax, the government says, they should make estimated tax payments, starting in April 2013, or ask their employers to increase the amount withheld from each paycheck.

In the Affordable Care Act, the new tax on investment income is called an “unearned income Medicare contribution.” However, the law does not provide for the money to be deposited in a specific trust fund. It is added to the government’s general tax revenues and can be used for education, law enforcement, farm subsidies or other purposes.

Donald B. Marron Jr., the director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, said the burden of this tax would be borne by the most affluent taxpayers, with about 85 percent of the revenue coming from 1 percent of taxpayers. By contrast, the biggest potential beneficiaries of the law include people with modest incomes who will receive Medicaid coverage or federal subsidies to buy private insurance.

Wealthy people and their tax advisers are already looking for ways to minimize the impact of the investment tax — for example, by selling stocks and bonds this year to avoid the higher tax rates in 2013.

The new 3.8 percent tax applies to the net investment income of certain high-income taxpayers, those with modified adjusted gross incomes above $200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for couples filing jointly.

David J. Kautter, the director of the Kogod Tax Center at American University, offered this example. In 2013, John earns $160,000, and his wife, Jane, earns $200,000. They have some investments, earn $5,000 in dividends and sell some long-held stock for a gain of $40,000, so their investment income is $45,000. They owe 3.8 percent of that amount, or $1,710, in the new investment tax. And they owe $990 in additional payroll tax.

The new tax on unearned income would come on top of other tax increases that might occur automatically next year if President Obama and Congress cannot reach an agreement in talks on the federal deficit and debt. If Congress does nothing, the tax rate on long-term capital gains, now 15 percent, will rise to 20 percent in January. Dividends will be treated as ordinary income and taxed at a maximum rate of 39.6 percent, up from the current 15 percent rate for most dividends.

Under another provision of the health care law, consumers may find it more difficult to obtain a tax break for medical expenses.

Taxpayers now can take an itemized deduction for unreimbursed medical expenses, to the extent that they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. The health care law will increase the threshold for most taxpayers to 10 percent next year. The increase is delayed to 2017 for people 65 and older.

In addition, workers face a new $2,500 limit on the amount they can contribute to flexible spending accounts used to pay medical expenses. Such accounts can benefit workers by allowing them to pay out-of-pocket expenses with pretax money.

Taken together, this provision and the change in the medical expense deduction are expected to raise more than $40 billion of revenue over 10 years.