IRS Issues Guidance on Employer Health Plan Opt-Out Payment Arrangements
Late last month the IRS released, in the form of 26 Q/As in Notice 2015-87, guidance on the application of various provisions of the Affordable Care Act to employer-sponsored health coverage. The Notice covers a number of important issues, including the effect of health reimbursement account contributions, cafeteria plan flex credits, and employer opt-out payments on an employee's cost of coverage for purposes of determining affordability under Code § 4980H(b). The Notice also addresses the application to government entities of the employer shared responsibility rules, information reporting for applicable large employers, health savings account matters for persons eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, COBRA continuation coverage for carried over health flexible spending account balances, and penalty relief for employers that make a good faith effort to comply with the ACA reporting rules.
Regarding employer opt-out arrangements, for months the IRS has stated, informally in various settings, that an employer should include the value of an opt-out payment in determining and reporting an employee's cost of coverage. (An opt-out payment is taxable income provided to an employee for waiving coverage under the employer's health plan.) Under this rule an opt-out payment might cause an employee's cost of coverage to become unaffordable, thereby potentially subjecting the employer to an assessable payment. Though the statutory and regulatory basis for this position is somewhat thin, a senior official at the IRS confirmed this view to us last summer.
Oddly enough, Notice 2015-87 both confirms and retreats from this position. Specifically, it provides that until the issuance of further guidance a payment under any opt-out payment arrangement in place prior to December 17, 2015 need not be reported on Form 1095-C and will not, on its own, cause an employer to be subject to a shared responsibility penalty. Further (as confirmed by communication with the principal author of the Notice) and again until IRS guidance states otherwise, a payment under a conditional opt-out arrangement (for example, one requiring an employee to show proof of coverage under the spouse's plan in order to receive the payment) adopted at any time need not be reported on Form 1095-C and will not, on its own, cause an employer to be subject to a shared responsibility penalty.
Though the Notice provides that, for the time being, opt-out payments under certain arrangements need not be added to an employee's cost of coverage for purposes of reporting and determining affordability, such payments will be added to an employee's cost of coverage for purposes of determining (i) the employee's eligibility for a subsidy on the Exchange, and (ii) whether the employee might be exemption from a penalty under the individual mandate.