NOVEMBER 5, 2015 | THOMAS AROMANDO
The math is harsh: The maximum federal penalty for having no health insurance is set to jump to $695. That means the 2016 sign-up season starting Nov. 1st could see penalties become a bigger focus to motivate millions of people who have remained eligible for coverage, but uninsured. Until now, health overhaul supporters have stressed the benefits of getting covered: taxpayer subsidies that pay roughly 70 percent of the monthly premium, financial protection against sudden illness or an accident, and access to regular preventive and follow-up medical care.
But in 2016, the penalty for being uninsured will rise to the greater of either — $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income — for someone who goes without coverage for a full 12 months. This year the comparable numbers are $325 or 2 percent of income.
The requirement that individuals get health insurance or face fines remains the most unpopular part of President Barack Obama’s health care law, and a prime target of Republican repeal efforts. It started at $95 or 1 percent of income in 2014. The fact that it’s up to $695 may take consumers by surprise.
But many experts consider the mandate essential to Obama’s overall approach, as does the insurance industry. The law forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems, and the coverage requirement forces healthy people into the insurance pool, helping to keep premiums in check. After 2016, the fines will rise with inflation.
This year was the first time the IRS collected the penalties, deducting them from taxpayers’ refunds for the 2014 tax year in most cases. Some 7.5 million households paid penalties totaling $1.5 billion, an average of $200 apiece, according to preliminary IRS data. Separately, another 12 million households claimed exemptions from the mandate because of financial hardships or other reasons.
Although Obama’s law is five years old and has survived two Supreme Court challenges, administration officials say the upcoming open enrollment season won’t be easy. The administration has set a goal of 10 million customers enrolled and paying their premiums by the end of 2016 on HealthCare.gov and state insurance markets. That’s roughly the number covered now, and well below what congressional budget analysts had estimated for 2016. The administration expects most will be returning customers, but 3 million to 4 million will be people who are currently uninsured.