WASHINGTON — The architects of the Affordable Care Act thought they had a blunt instrument to force people — even young and healthy ones — to buy insurance through the law’s online marketplaces: a tax penalty for those who remain uninsured.
It has not worked all that well, and that is at least partly to blame for soaring premiums next year on some of the health law’s insurance exchanges.
The full weight of the penalty will not be felt until April, when those who have avoided buying insurance will face penalties of around $700 a person or more. But even then that might not be enough: For the young and healthy who are badly needed to make the exchanges work, it is sometimes cheaper to pay the Internal Revenue Service than an insurance company charging large premiums, with huge deductibles.
“In my experience, the penalty has not been large enough to motivate people to sign up for insurance,” said Christine Speidel, a tax lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid.
Some people do sign up, especially those with low incomes who receive the most generous subsidies, Speidel said. But others, she said, find that they cannot afford insurance, even with subsidies, so “they grudgingly take the penalty.”
The IRS says that 8.1 million returns included penalty payments for people who went without insurance in 2014, the first year in which most people were required to have coverage. A preliminary report on the latest tax-filing season, tabulating data through April of this year, said that 5.6 million returns included penalties averaging $442 per return for people uninsured in 2015.
With the health law’s fourth open-enrollment season beginning Tuesday, consumers are anxiously weighing their options.
William H. Weber, 51, a business consultant in Atlanta, said he paid $1,400 a month this year for a Humana health plan that covered him and his wife and two children. Premiums will increase 60 percent next year, Weber said, and he does not see alternative policies that would be less expensive. So he said he was seriously considering dropping insurance and paying the penalty.
“We may roll the dice next year, go without insurance and hope we have no major medical emergencies,” Weber said. “The penalty would be less than two months of premiums.” (He said that he did not qualify for a subsidy because his income was too high, but that his son, a barista in New York City, had a great plan with a subsidy.)
Iris I. Burnell, the manager of a Jackson Hewitt Tax Service office on Capitol Hill, said she met this week with a client in his late 50s who has several part-time jobs and wants to buy insurance on the exchanges. But, she said, “he’s finding that the costs are prohibitive on a monthly basis, so he has resigned himself to the fact that he will have to suffer the penalty.”
When Congress was writing the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, lawmakers tried to balance carrots and sticks: subsidies to induce people to buy insurance and tax penalties “to ensure compliance,” in the words of the Senate Finance Committee.
But the requirement for people to carry insurance is one of the most unpopular provisions of the law, and the Obama administration has been cautious in enforcing it. The IRS portrays the decision to go without insurance as a permissible option, not as a violation of federal law.
The law “requires you and each member of your family to have qualifying health care coverage (called minimum essential coverage), qualify for a coverage exemption, or make an individual shared responsibility payment when you file your federal income tax return,” the tax agency says on its website.
Some consumers who buy insurance on the exchanges still feel vulnerable. Deductibles are so high, they say, that the insurance seems useless. So some feel that whether they send hundreds of dollars to the IRS or thousands to an insurance company, they are essentially paying something for nothing.
Obama administration officials say that perception is wrong. Even people with high deductibles have protection against catastrophic costs, they say, and many insurance plans cover common health care services before consumers meet their deductibles. In addition, even when consumers pay most or all of a hospital bill, they often get the benefit of discounts negotiated by their insurers.
The health law authorized certain exemptions from the coverage requirement, and the Obama administration has expanded that list through rules and policy directives. More than 12 million taxpayers claimed one or more coverage exemptions last year because, for instance, they were homeless, had received a shut-off notice from a utility company, or were experiencing other hardships.
“The penalty for violating the individual mandate has not been very effective,” said Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the tax history project at Tax Analysts, a nonprofit publisher of tax information. “If it were effective, we would have higher enrollment, and the population buying policies in the insurance exchange would be healthier and younger.”
Americans have decades of experience with tax deductions and other tax breaks aimed at encouraging various types of behavior, as well as “sin taxes” intended to discourage other kinds of behavior, Thorndike said. But, he said: “It is highly unusual for the federal government to use tax penalties to encourage affirmative behavior. That’s a hard sell.”