Health and Science

IRS: More paid Obamacare fine than expected

They paid their Obamacare fine, even though many of them apparently didn't have to.

About 7.5 million taxpayers so far have paid a penalty on their taxes for failing to have health insurance last year, as required for the first time by the Affordable Care Act, officials said Monday. That number is well in excess of original projections by officials.

The average penalty paid was about $200 per person, and in all $1.5 billion was collected by the Internal Revenue Service in these fines. However, officials stressed that "the vast majority"—85 percent—of people who paid the fines nonetheless ended up with a net tax refund from the IRS.

The Treasury Department said about 300,000 people who paid the penalty likely qualified for an exemption from having to have health coverage. There are a slew of exemptions from the Obamacare mandate based on income status or certain hardships.

"The IRS will be reaching out to these taxpayers to inform them about available exemptions and note that they may benefit from amending their tax return," said Mark Mazur, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, in a blog post Monday. "This outreach will also help educate taxpayers about the options they have for future years."

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About 12 million people claimed one of the many exemptions from the Obamacare mandate to have coverage, officials said. This represents about 9 percent of all filers, compared to the 10 to 20 percent that it had been estimated would avail themselves of an exemption.

Another 5.1 million people failed to state they had health coverage, claim an exemption, or say they had paid the fine, officials said. The IRS is now "analyzing these cases to determine their status," according to a letter officials sent Congress.

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The Obama administration had expected that between 2 and 4 percent of taxpayers would be subject to the Obamacare penalty this past filing season, which would have worked out to between 2.7 million and 5.4 million people. Instead, about 6 percent of taxpayers have paid the fine.

As a result, almost exactly the same number of people who selected Obamacare plans sold through government-run marketplaces by the close of open enrollment in 2014 opted or failed to get coverage that year, and agreed to pay the tax penalty.

The higher-than-expected number of people paying the penalty underscores the challenges the administration continues to face in getting uninsured people to willingly accept coverage even after the ACA made it easier for them to do so.

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The penalty for failing to have coverage last year was the greater of $95 per adult or 1 percent of adjusted gross household income. That fine rises to the higher of $325 per adult or 2 percent of household income this year, and increases in future years.

Pricey premiums
Pricey premiums

This year was the first in which the IRS was dealing with many issues related to the Affordable Care Act. As expected, about 76 percent of taxpayers—the equivalent of about 102 million returns—simply checked a box on their return to indicate they had health coverage throughout the year, and were not required to do anything else to comply with the ACA.

A much smaller group of people who purchased Obamacare health plans on government exchanges, and who received a federal subsidy to help pay for their plans, were required to file forms reconciling what they received in subsidies, and what they actually should have received. The subsidies can be worth thousands of dollars a year.

Only about 10 percent of subsidized customers got the exact amount of tax credits they were due. About 40 percent were owed more in the way of subsidies when they filed their taxes, and got an average of an extra $600. About 50 percent of subsidized customers owed money back, an average of $800, officials said. In the cases where people owed some of their subsidies back, about 65 percent still ended up with a net tax refund.

The Treasury Department said that out of 4.5 million taxpayers who received a subsidy, or tax credit, only about 2.7 million had filed a tax return that was processed by the end of May.

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Another 360,000 subsidized Obamacare customers had filed for an extension on their taxes.

About 710,000 people who received subsidies have not filed a tax return, and have not applied for an extension, as required, officials said.

The IRS is reaching out to those people, and reminding them of their responsibility to file a return. If those people don't respond, they would lose their subsidy next year.

Another 760,000 who were subsidized, and who filed a return but did not file a form reconciling their Obamacare subsidies, are also being contacted by the IRS.

CNBC revealed last week how, an audit defense company, said none of its clients were being questioned by the IRS so far about their compliance with the ACA on any issue except for having received a tax credit and not filing a form reconciling that subsidy amount.

So far, no clients who merely claimed they had coverage, who qualified for an exemption, or who had failed to check the box indicating their coverage status were being questioned by the IRS, a company executive said.

The IRS, in a statement to CNBC, said: "The IRS will follow its normal compliance approach to filed tax returns. During its normal processes, the IRS routinely follows up on the accuracy and completeness of tax returns and may ask taxpayers to substantiate the information on their tax returns. These inquiries sometime occur before processing refund requests and other times after the processing of refund requests."

"The vast majority of taxpayers voluntarily comply with their tax responsibilities—our income tax system is built on voluntary compliance," the IRS said.