The Law Isn’t Fair, But You Have to Pay the Tax

A California couple received an Advance Premium Tax Credit (part of the “Affordable Care Act,” aka ObamaCare). Through bureaucratic errors at Covered California, they’re unable to change their plan once they’re both employed to stop the credit, nor do they receive a Form 1095-A. It’s not as if they ever received the credits themselves; they went to insurers. The IRS assesses the repayment of the Advance Premium Tax Credit and assesses an accuracy-related penalty. The dispute ends up in Tax Court; do they have to pay the tax and penalty?

The facts of the case aren’t in dispute. The couple (for 2014) enrolled in a Silver plan based on lower income. When the wife took a job she promptly notified Covered California that their income increased; clearly, the credit needed to be adjusted. Months later, Covered California sent a letter to them…except the letter was never received.

What happened to that letter is unclear. The records from Covered California that were provided in this case are incomplete. But according to the records in evidence, “during Covered California’s first open enrollment period, Covered California was so busy that it was not uncommon that changes were not implemented.” What the record makes clear is that the [couple] made repeated efforts to get Covered California to take into account the change in household income, but it never did so. [footnote omitted]

They also notified Covered California of their address change; Covered California ignored that. They had an administrative hearing with the California Department of Health Care over Covered California’s errors; they lost on procedural grounds: “The Administrative Law Judge lacks jurisdiction to decide an issue involving an error on the part of Covered California for failure to recalculate the appellant’s eligibility for APTC after the appellant reported a change in income in January 2014.” They never received the Form 1095-A. They did note on their 2014 return that they had health insurance but they ignored the Advance Premium Tax Credit. The IRS assessed the tax (in the amount of the disallowed tax credit) and an accuracy-related penalty.

The couple correctly notes the Catch-22 they were caught in:

[The Commissioner argues] that if Petitioners are liable for the deficiency, then they would be no worse off financially than if the APTC had been terminated in early 2014. This is simply untrue and does not alter the fact that it was Covered California’s responsibility to ensure clients only received the Advance Premium Tax Credit for which they qualified. We would never have committed to paying for medical coverage in excess of $14,000 per year. We cannot afford it and would have continued to shop in the private sector to purchase the minimal, least expensive coverage or gone without coverage completely and suffered the penalties. * * *

* * * If we are deemed responsible for paying back this deficiency, it would be devastating and completely unjust. We hope and pray you are convinced that we have made every single effort to get Covered California to make proper adjustments to our reported income and subsequently to the Advance Premium Tax Credit we were qualified to receive without success. The whole purpose of the Affordable Care Act was to provide citizens with just that, affordable healthcare. This has been an absolute nightmare and we hope you will rule fairly and justly today.

Unfortunately, the Tax Court is not a court of equity:

In other words, the [couple] considered themselves to have been trapped in a health plan that they could not afford without the subsidy provided by the ACA. And they ask us to rule “fairly and justly” or, otherwise stated, equitably.

But we are not a court of equity, and we cannot ignore the law to achieve an equitable end. Although we are sympathetic to the [couple’s] situation, the statute is clear; excess advance premium tax credits are treated as an increase in the tax imposed. The [couple] received an advance of a credit to which they ultimately were not entitled. They are liable for the $7,092 deficiency. [citations omitted]

To add insult to injury, the couple were also charged with an accuracy-related penalty. Here, though, the law is on the couple’s side:

On the totality of the facts and circumstances, the [couple] acted reasonably and in good faith with respect to the underpayment of tax on their return. They did not receive a Form 1095-A showing the income they received in the form of an advance premium assistance credit, and they did not directly receive that income. They did not know nor should they have known that they had additional income required to be shown on their return, and consequently they are not liable for the accuracy-related penalty under section 6662(a).

This result is anything but equitable for the couple. They tried to have the credit adjusted but the bureaucracy ignored them. It just goes to show that when Ronald Reagan stated the following in 1986 he was dead-on accurate:

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

Case: McGuire v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 9

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