IRS is Obamacare enforcer

Published 1:02 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2012

As Mitt Romney campaigns on the promise to repeal Obamacare, some Republicans on Capitol Hill are trying to learn more about what the national health care law will actually do when it is fully implemented in 2014. Romney would do well to take a look at what they’ve discovered.

Specifically, Romney might want to focus on the new and expanded role that the Internal Revenue Service will play in Americans’ lives as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

The nation’s widely reviled tax collector will also become its health care enforcer. Once the law goes fully into effect, all Americans will have to prove that they have “qualified” health coverage — and, of course, the government will decide what “qualified” health coverage is. If people don’t have coverage, and the IRS determines they have the ability to pay for it, the IRS will go after them.

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The Obama administration has tried to downplay what the feds will do to collect the penalty for not buying coverage — a penalty that will range from $695 a year for lower-income people to $12,500 for a higher-income family. Administration officials and Democrats in Congress have stressed that Obamacare does not permit the IRS to garnish wages or seize cash and assets from taxpayers.

What they mention less frequently is that the IRS has another way to get the money. About three-quarters of U.S. taxpayers receive refunds after filing their returns each year, with the average refund nearly $3,000. After 2014, those people will discover the IRS can take the penalty out of their refunds.

“The IRS is prevented from issuing liens or levies or other enforcement action,” Nina Olson, who holds a job called the National Taxpayer Advocate at the IRS, told a House hearing in August. “It can collect that mandate through what we call ‘refund offset,’ where a taxpayer has a refund coming to them and we would offset that refund amount with the amount of the penalty.”

The IRS will also determine who is eligible for taxpayer-financed subsidies to purchase health care on the exchanges that will be set up in every state. Anytime anyone’s situation changes — a raise, a new job, a move to another state — that person will be required to report it to the IRS for the purpose of recalculating their eligibility.

This is not a small group. Obamacare will give tax credits for the purchase of health coverage to people who make up to four times the poverty level — at the moment, that’s $44,100 a year for an individual and $88,200 for a family of four. Those millions of Americans had better keep the IRS informed of their status every step of the way.

At the August hearing, Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg asked Olson, “Do you believe that most Americans are going to update the IRS or state exchanges when they change jobs, get married, move states, whatever?”

“I think it’s going to be a very great learning curve,” Olson responded.

“With a lot of pitfalls?”

“With a lot of pitfalls,” Olson agreed, suggesting that many taxpayers will discover their refunds reduced. “I think it will be a surprise to taxpayers if they don’t update their information.”

Obamacare also directs the IRS to share confidential personal tax returns with the exchanges and other government agencies. The IRS assures the public it already does that sort of thing for Medicaid, and that privacy is protected. “This agency takes data security very, very seriously,” IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told the House in August.

Even if everything works out as planned, Americans will still face a lot of work complying with Obamacare’s requirements. National health care “will become a burdensome, costly and frustrating quagmire for millions of Americans,” former IRS Commissioner Fred Goldberg told the House. Republican lawmakers estimate it will take about 80 million additional man-hours for Americans to comply.

President Obama and Democrats front-loaded the popular portions of Obamacare — a ban on pre-existing conditions, coverage of adult children on parents’ policies — to go into effect before the 2012 election. They left harder parts — the mandate, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, expanded powers of the IRS — until 2014, after which, they hope, Obama will have been safely re-elected. But those parts of the law are on the way.

Romney often discusses Obamacare in general terms. The president “wants to put bureaucrats between you and your doctor,” he said last week in Ohio. That’s true. But the way Obamacare does that — in particular, the IRS’ role as health care enforcer — might well strike dread in many American hearts. Romney owes it to voters to tell them exactly what is coming.

(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.)