How Congress Can Provide Relief From Looming Obamacare Mandates

By Whitney Jones, Research Assistant, Domestic Policy Studies, Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

President Donald Trump’s historic tax reform legislation repealed, among other things, Obamacare’s individual mandate tax penalty. Effective in 2019, the IRS will no longer penalize Americans for not purchasing a federally approved health insurance plan.

Unfortunately, Congress failed to repeal the even more economically disruptive employer mandate that forces businesses to pay tax penalties for not offering their employees Obamacare’s required level of health benefits.

The Obamacare mandate requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to provide proof of insurance coverage to the IRS. Businesses face the risk of tax penalties if they do not provide government-stipulated “minimum essential coverage” to employees who work at least 30 hours a week.

Obamacare’s employer mandate has some unpleasant consequences for both employers and employees. It results in businesses paying their workers lower wages in order to afford the government’s mandatory level of health insurance coverage. It also creates incentives for employers to scale back workers’ hours in order to come under the law’s arbitrary compliance standards for full-time employment.

Among policy analysts, both liberal and conservative, there is a growing consensus that the employer mandate should be repealed.

For example, analysts at the Urban Institute, a prominent liberal think tank based in Washington, argue that the employer mandate negatively affects the labor market and harms low-wage workers. The Urban Institute analysts find that “[e]liminating the employer mandate would eliminate labor market distortions in the law, lessen opposition to the law from employers, and have little effect on coverage.”

Late last year, American businesses received their first Obamacare bills from the IRS. Some businesses are facing thousands, if not millions, of dollars in unexpected penalties.

Under the statute, the employer mandate was supposed to take effect in 2015. The IRS, however, was not prepared to enforce the penalties on businesses and delayed imposing the penalties and the reporting requirements for three years.

Now, however, the IRS is ready to collect the penalties from American businesses.

Employer groups are rightly concerned that the imposition of the mandate and its penalties will wreak financial havoc and disrupt their business operations. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that employers who have not complied with the Obamacare mandate will pay out a total of $12 billion in tax penalties for 2018, and a total of $139 billion over the 2015-2024 period.

The pending enforcement of Obamacare’s employer mandate both undermines the success of tax reform and contradicts repeated efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Rather than using their new tax savings to expand their businesses and create jobs, some employers may be forced to hand over money that could be much better used for productive purposes back to the IRS.

Individual taxpayers may also have cause for concern. While the individual mandate penalty was repealed as part of tax reform, as noted, it is still on the books until 2019. The IRS has already declared its intention to assess the Obamacare mandate penalties on individuals.

Under current law, the IRS can continue enforcing the individual mandate for the next two years—meaning Americans will face tax penalties for not purchasing and maintaining Washington’s specified level of health coverage.

Congress should eliminate the Obamacare penalties for both individuals and employers right away. Congress can do this by including the repeal of both mandates and accompanying penalties through the omnibus spending bill that will provide funding for the federal government after March 23.

If that effort should fail, the only other avenue for relief for individuals and businesses is through a more cumbersome state application for a federal waiver from these mandates and their penalties.

Congress should not delay. A repeal of Obamacare’s burdensome mandates is integral to the broader agenda of creating a truly competitive and open marketplace for Americans to secure the affordable health plans of their choice, rather than being forced into the coverage that Washington requires.

Repealing the employer mandate and its tax penalties is just one important step in the ongoing process to reform American health care in a comprehensive fashion, reverse the government-centric policies of the status quo, and give American citizens the right to choose the health care coverage of their choice at a price they wish to pay.

*To read this commentary on The Daily Signal website, click here.

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