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Surprised by your health care tax penalty? Here’s what you need to know

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The deadline for filing your taxes is just hours away, and for several million Americans, this year is turning out to be even more complicated than usual. It's the first time since the health care law was enacted that individuals must pay a penalty if they don't have health insurance. The penalty is 1 percent of income, or $95, whichever is greater.

    But, in some cases where people received subsidies, in the form of tax credits, the calculation is tougher. Moreover, surveys showed more than half of those who could be affected didn't know much about the penalty.

    Well, let's help clarify the picture with Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News and accountant Poonam Bansal. She's owner of the firm Accounting Solutions in Virginia.

    And welcome you both.

    So, Julie Rovner, to you first.

    We said millions of Americans. How many people are really affected by this new health care law in terms of their taxes?

  • JULIE ROVNER, Kaiser Health News:

    Well, we don't know how many people are going to be paying the penalty because they didn't have insurance in 2014. That's partly because we don't know precisely how many people remained uncovered, and also, mostly, we don't know how many of those people who remained uncovered will qualify for one of the myriad exemptions from having to pay the penalty.

    We have a better idea of who is impacted in terms of the subsidies. There are just under seven million people who were signed up for insurance on the marketplaces. Those are the people who are being theoretically affected. About 80 percent of people who got insurance coverage through the exchanges got subsidies. Those are the ones who are having to do a very complicated calculation about whether they have to get money — some of them are getting money back, and some of them will owe more money.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that's whether it's a state exchange or the federal exchange; is that correct?

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    In both cases, yes. That money was federal tax money.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    OK.

    So, Poonam Bansal, you're the one who is dealing with these taxpayers. What are you seeing first in terms of the penalty that people are expected to pay? How much of an issue is that turning out to be?

  • POONAM BANSAL, Accounting Solutions:

    There are a lot of taxpayers who filed their — who filed for the exchange programs, got subsidies when they filled out those forms.

    And let's say somebody didn't have a job. Then he got insurance through the marketplace, got a certain premium, got a certain credit, and then they got a job. They never thought they were supposed to change anything, and then they come and do their taxes and now they made way lot more money than getting the credit, and now they owe it all back.

    Those are the kinds of shockers people are getting. There are a lot of people out there who we did taxes for ended up paying back. And they were shocked.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It sounds like there are more people affected who bought insurance in one form or another and didn't realize that this benefit they were getting was going to add to the total income.

  • POONAM BANSAL:

    Exactly.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Then there are people who didn't — who didn't buy health insurance at all, don't have health insurance, and are having to pay a penalty?

  • POONAM BANSAL:

    Yes.

    There are people who didn't have health insurance at all. But those are not such a very high percentage, because a lot of them are really very low-income people who couldn't afford it. And that's the reason they don't have it. And they were — or they were not very smart or educated to go to the marketplace and shop around.

    And in those cases, we are seeing they don't really owe that much because they fall in the category that they're exempt.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Julie Rovner, how good a job did the government do of educating people about this? Because we're hearing — now we're hearing that some people didn't really understand — and we just heard Poonam say, they didn't understand what they were going to owe.

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    Yes. Well, there are still some number of people who think that the law has been repealed or that the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, neither of which has happened, just both of which have been debated.

    It's not that surprising that there were some number of people who still didn't realize they were supposed to have insurance. Now, one of the things that the federal government has done, they say this year only, if that you're doing your taxes — remember, what's due today are your taxes for last year, for 2014.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    If you still don't have insurance, well the sign-up period closed in February. But there is a special enrollment period this year for people who are doing their 2014 taxes, finding out they have to pay a penalty, and thinking, oh, my goodness, I will have to pay another penalty for 2015, which is, by the way, larger.

    So those people are at least getting a chance to sign up, so they won't have to pay a penalty next year for this year.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But — so they're being given a little more time to sign up. They still have to pay their taxes.

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    Yes. They still have — they still owe whatever they owe for 2014.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    This is a chance for them to not owe for 2015 also.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Poonam Bansal, what are some examples of the kinds of issues you have described what some people are bringing to you? Are these difficult things to resolve? Are they relatively easy once people recognize what the issue is? How is it working?

  • POONAM BANSAL:

    Well, tax time, as I always say, involves a lot of emotions, because it involves money. Any clients, we say you have a refund, they start hugging us. And anybody we say, you owe, feels like I'm the devil.

    And on top of it, we have the Affordable Care Act, which some people owe and some people don't, and they just can't understand it. They just feel like, I'm doing something wrong. It's not that hard to resolve in terms of technicalities. I think it's people's mind-set and for them to accept it.

    Now, just say, for example, a father is claiming his daughter dependent on his return. She's earning $10,000 a year. So, she's still young. That income is counted towards the gross family income…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • POONAM BANSAL:

    … to get the exchange. But he didn't know that. And he didn't include that. And now he owes a penalty. So those kind of things, they just can't understand it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So people are getting educated.

    Julie, is the government thinking — I know you're not talking to everybody in the government. But is the sense that people will be better informed by next year, that this is just a rocky start for this whole thing?

  • JULIE ROVNER:

    Well, I think it's fair to say that this year has gone more smoothly than many expected. There was expected, particularly people who have been watching this thought there would be all kinds of backlash from people suddenly going to do their taxes and realizing they are going to have to pay, when they thought they were getting a refund, or they're losing half their refund, or the penalty for not having insurance is for most people more than $95.

    And, by and large, we haven't heard a huge outcry about this. Obviously, there are situations where people are getting rude surprises, but there are also situations where people are getting bigger refunds than they thought because they didn't sign up for enough of a subsidy.

    So, there's people who a happy. But there's nothing to quite educate people than going and doing your taxes and seeing this. I think a lot more people are going to know about this now than knew about it three months ago.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, as we sit here right now in Washington, there are about six more hours to go. They have got that much time to figure it out.

    Poonam Bansal, Julie Rovner, we thank you both.

  • POONAM BANSAL:

    Thank you, Judy. It's nice being here.

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