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It turns out that the first year of tax filing for people who have Affordable Care Act health insurance subsidies was a lot easier than the first year of enrolling in the online exchanges.
In contrast to the ACA’s maiden open enrollment season, the initial process of settling up incorrect subsidies was a relative breeze. However, reports by the two largest private tax prep firms, Intuit and H&R Block, show significant differences in the size and pattern of adjustments their customers had to make.
According to Intuit, the firm that owns the DIY tax-filing software TurboTax, its customers had to repay relatively small amounts to reflect the excess insurance subsidies they received over the year. And even those who did not have coverage seemed to have paid their penalties without complication (which is not to say all were happy about it).
H&R Block found that more of its customers had to repay money, and the amounts they returned were significantly larger. However, Block filers who had to pay back excess subsidies still ended up with refunds.
About 80 percent of filers merely had to check a new box on their 1040 certifying that they already had insurance, usually from an employer. Other than that, the ACA was a non-event, at least on their tax returns.
Among those who bought marketplace insurance, about 8 out of 10 received subsidies. But because they had to predict their 2014 income in advance to estimate their initial level of financial assistance—not easy to do--nearly all received the wrong amount. Since the subsidies are treated as tax credits, recipients must settle up when they file their returns. In addition, the ACA requires that those who do not have insurance (with many exceptions) to pay a penalty when they file their 1040.
Almost no one got the credit exactly right. Intuit says only 5 percent of its filers made no adjustments. But its customers came close.
Of those filers who got subsidies, about half got too much and had to pay back between $315 and $365 on average. About 40 percent overestimated their 2014 income and received advance credits that were too small. On average, they got back between $207 and $257.
H&R Block says the adjustments were much bigger for its filers who received ACA credits. About two-thirds had to repay an average of $723, while about one-quarter got back an average of $425.
Intuit did not say whether those extra payments turned refunds for its filers into balances due. But Block reported that its typical customers still got refunds even if they had to repay some of their insurance subsidies. An average Block filer with an excess ACA credit saw her refund trimmed by about a third. A typical Block filer who got an additional ACA credit saw his refund increase by about 18 percent.
Earlier in the tax season, my Tax Policy Center colleagues Len Burman, Gordon Mermin, and Elena Ramirez estimated that most low-income households that return money under the ACA are still likely to get refunds. For an in-depth discussion of the ACA and taxes, check out this TPC panel from February.
Among those who were uninsured, penalties also turned out to be modest. For 2014, the ACA imposed penalties of $95 or 1 percent of income--whichever is more-- for those without coverage. There were many exceptions, and the fine was pro-rated for those who were uninsured for only part of the year.
As a result, Intuit found the average penalty ranged from $88 – $138. Among singles, more than 40 percent paid the minimum $95. Once again, Block reported bigger numbers for its customers, who paid an average penalty of $178, or 7 percent of a typical refund.
For 2015, the penalties will increase to $325 per adult or 2 percent of income. If you want to learn more about them, TPC has a nice calculator here.
In sum, despite predictions of filing season disaster, the process of truing up the ACA’s tax subsides turned out to be pretty painless. However, there were large differences in the size of the adjustments between Turbo Tax users and Block customers. It will be interesting to learn why.
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