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Many employers had thought they could shift health costs to the government by sending their employees to a health insurance exchange with a tax-free contribution of cash to help pay premiums, but the Obama administration has squelched the idea in a new ruling. Such arrangements do not satisfy the health care law, the administration said, and employers may be subject to a tax penalty of $100 a day — or $36,500 a year — for each employee who goes into the individual marketplace.

The ruling, by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), blocks any wholesale move by employers to dump employees into the exchanges.

Under a central provision of the health care law, larger employers are required to offer health coverage to full-time workers, or else the employers may be subject to penalties.

Many employers — some that now offer coverage and some that do not — had concluded that it would be cheaper to provide each employee with a lump sum of money to buy insurance on an exchange, instead of providing coverage directly.

But the Obama administration raised objections, contained in an authoritative question-and-answer document released by the Internal Revenue Service, in consultation with other agencies.

The health law, known as the Affordable Care Act, builds on the current system of employer-based health insurance. The administration, like many in Congress, wants employers to continue to provide coverage to workers and their families.

When employers provide coverage, their contributions, averaging more than $5,000 a year per employee, are not counted as taxable income to workers. But the Internal Revenue Service said employers could not meet their obligations under the health care law by simply reimbursing employees for some or all of their premium costs.

When an employer reimburses employees for premiums, the arrangement is known as an employer payment plan. “These employer payment plans are considered to be group health plans,” the I.R.S. said, but they do not satisfy requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Under the law, insurers may not impose annual limits on the dollar amount of benefits for any individual, and they must provide certain preventive services, like mammograms and colon cancer screenings, without co-payments or other charges.

But the administration said employer payment plans do not meet those requirements.

The ruling came as the Obama administration rushed to provide guidance to employers and insurers deciding what types of coverage to offer in 2015.

In a new regulation, the Department of Health and Human Services said it would provide financial assistance to certain insurers that experience unexpected financial losses this year. Administration officials hope the payments will stabilize premiums and prevent rate increases.

Source:  New York Times