The U.S. Supreme Court is typically charged with determining the victor of the country’s most important debates, such as Roe v. Wade, religion v. science or, which shape marshmallow should be added to boxes of Lucky Charms. So when the high court goes slumming, setting aside three days to hear debate with potentially major implications on the tax law, it’s incumbent upon every CPA to stand up and take notice.
Of course, it’s a rather busy time of year, and given the pile of Form 1040s overwhelming your desk, the events transpiring in D.C. are probably the least of your concerns. So as a bit of a public service, we’ve put together the following “heads up” for our industry peers, hopefully giving you the information you’ll need when your clients inevitably ask you for your take on the Supreme Court’s review of “Obamacare.” You can thank us after the 17th.
Q: What’s Obamacare? It sounds like a charitable organization to which I don’t contribute.
A: On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a 2700-page bill that took aim squarely at the country’s health care practices. The reform would extend health insurance to an additional 32 million Americans while revamping one of the nation’s largest industries: prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions, expanding the Medicaid threshold to 133% of the poverty line, and eliminating the ability of insurers to cap an insured’s “lifetime limit” of benefits.
Q: I didn’t hear anything about tax in there, so why do I care?
A: The Act also contained several major tax provisions, one of which set off a firestorm of debate regarding its constitutionality. Beginning in 2014, I.R.C. § 5000A will require taxpayers to purchase or retain health insurance that qualifies as minimum essential coverage, and to report this information on their federal tax returns, subject to certain codified exceptions. If the taxpayer fails to maintain adequate insurance, a monthly “penalty” is imposed equal to the greater of a flat dollar amount (phased in starting at $95 in 2014) or a percentage of the taxpayer‘s income (phased in starting at 1% in 2014).
Q: Where does the “constitutionality” come in?
A: Twenty-eight states have filed suit seeking to overturn this individual insurance mandate, challenging whether Congress is overstepping its taxing powers by imposing a penalty on individuals for failing to obtain insurance. In 2010, a Virginia federal court ruled the individual mandate unconstitutional, striking it from the Patient Protection Act but allowing the rest of the act to stand. The case was later overturned on appeal.
In early 2011, however, a Florida district court also held the individual insurance mandate unconstitutional, but refused to sever the provision from the rest of the Act, rending the entire Act unconstitutional. This time, on appeal, the verdict stood, but the appeals court disagreed on the severability of the individual mandate, allowing the rest of the Act to remain. The Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, which brings us to today.
Q: So what’s the Supreme Court going to decide?
A: Over the next three days, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin its review of Obamacare, an unprecedented act in the sense that it is the first time the high court has considered striking down a president’ signature legislation in the midst of his re-election campaign. Here’s how the next few days are expected to shake out:
Today: Before the discussion of constitutionality can even get off the ground, the Supreme Court must determine whether the “penalty” under I.R.C. § 5000A for filing to obtain insurance is a “tax” or a “penalty.” If it’s truly a tax, then the current debate might be over before it gets started, courtesy of this old-timey law as explained by Bloomberg:
A 145-year-old law, the Anti-Injunction Act, says courts can’t rule on the legality of federal taxes until they are imposed. For the no-insurance penalty in the 2010 health care law, which takes effect in stages, that comes in 2015. The justices may decide it’s too soon to rule on the health law’s constitutionality.
In other words, if the penalty under I.R.C. § 5001A is held to constitute a tax, the Supreme Court might be barred from deciding the constitutionality of the insurance tax until it is actually imposed beginning in 2015.
Tomorrow: Assuming today’s hearings don’t render the remaining debate moot, tomorrow is likely to contain the most spirited arguments, as the Supreme Court will hear debate on whether the Constitution allows the government to require Americans to either get insurance, or pay a penalty.
Q: What will each side be arguing?
A: Similar to the state courts, the argument is likely to consist of the following positions:
On one side, detractors of the Patient Protection Act will insist that Congress has no authority to order someone to give up their own desire not to buy a commercial product and force them into a market they do not want to enter. The federal government, on the other hand, will defend the new law as being allowable under the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the taxation power of the General Welfare Clause.
Q: What’s left to hear on Wednesday?
A: Wednesday could actually have far-reaching effects on the tax world. The court will hear debate about what should happen to the rest of Obamacare should the individual insurance mandate be found unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court were to strike down the entire Patient and Protection Act because the individual insurance mandate was found unconstitutional, the remaining tax provisions would die with it. As a reminder, some of the other significant tax provisions found in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act include the following:
- Starting in 2014, pursuant to I.R.C. § 4980H, applicable large employers must provide minimum essential coverage to each full-time employee and their dependents. Failure to comply with the employer mandate will result in a penalty equal to one-twelfth of $3,000 for each month multiplied by the applicable number of full-time employees. In general, an “applicable large employer” is any employer with a work force in excess of fifty full-time employees.
- Higher Medicare taxes will be imposed upon wealthy taxpayers beginning in 2013. Section 3101(b)(2)will be amended to include an additional tax of 0.9 percent on all income in excess of $200,000 or $250,000 for joint filers.
- 2013 will also add to the Code I.R.C. § 1411, which creates a 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income in excess of $250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married filing separately, and $200,000 ―in any other case.
We’ll do our best to keep you apprised of any big developments.