- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2013

Critics have long derided President Obama’s signature health care law as a job killer.

Don’t tell that to the tax-preparation industry.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is chock-full of complex rules, mandates, incentives and tax code changes, and that’s proving a boon for accountants armed with expertise in the reforms, as filers take notice of the spectrum of taxes, exemptions and rules that will roll out in stages over the next few years.

At least one tax-preparation behemoth has recognized the marketing potential of “Obamacare.” In a television advertisement, an H&R Block employee notes the connection between taxes and health care and cheerfully tells viewers that she pored over the minutiae of the massive health care overhaul plan.

“I read the whole 900 pages,” the employee, Ana Maria Costanza, tells viewers. “It literally took me weeks.”

Kathy Pickering, executive director of the company’s tax institute, said in an interview that Ms. Costanza is a real employee who really did read the voluminous act, prompting the obvious question: Is she the only one who did?

“We have heard that as well,” Ms. Pickering quipped.

H&R Block conducted a survey of its customers last summer and found that 77 percent were not aware that their 2012 tax returns would establish an income baseline to determine their eligibility for subsidies to buy insurance under the health care law. They also found that half of those surveyed in the 18-34 age group were not aware of the tax penalties they could face for failing to acquire insurance under the law’s “individual mandate,” which the Supreme Court upheld in June.

Ms. Pickering noted that the federal government will look back at 2012 tax information when individuals purchase insurance in virtual health care marketplaces, or “exchanges,” that are slated to begin enrollment in October and activate at the dawn of next year.

Looking ahead, she said, the government will use 2014 returns filed in 2015 to establish whether people obtained the correct subsidies or must be assessed a penalty out of their tax refunds for failing to obtain insurance under the law’s mandates.

“This is the year,” she said, “to get educated and informed.”

H&R Block is advertising a free tax and health care review to their customers so they understand their eligibility for subsides or susceptibility to penalties in the coming years.

“That doesn’t surprise me too much,” Chis Whitcomb, tax counsel at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said of the promotion. “I’m quite sure Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse are sending alerts to their clients as well.”

Outside help

While few tax changes flowing from the health care law will affect taxpaying citizens during the current filing season, some businesses and individuals must gird for Medicare taxes that go into effect this year on people with higher incomes and larger assessments on capital gains, analysts said.

According to NFIB research, 88 percent of their members rely on outside help to meet their tax obligations because they must tend to their business and do not have in-house accountants. The small-business lobby was one of the main political opponents of the health care law and helped lead the legal challenge that ultimately was heard by the Supreme Court last summer.

Mark Steber, the chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, said his company also is starting to help clients wade through the health care rules and “additional complexityon the 1040 form that all taxpayers must use to file a tax return.”

Within months, clients likely will pose new tax questions related to the state-based markets that allow users to compare insurance plans.

“There are bound to be a host of questions related to the exchanges,” Mr. Steber said in an email, “where consumers will seek out a trained tax preparer to help them better understand the new law and its implications.”

The health care tax questions come on top of a tax-preparation ordeal that even the Internal Revenue Service’s internal watchdog says has grown too burdensome.

Agency ombudsman Nina E. Olson said this month in her annual report to Congress that the complex U.S. tax code poses a “significant, even unconscionable burden” on ordinary filers just to complete a 1040 form. Ms. Olson estimated that individuals and businesses put in a combined 6 billion man-hours annually just making sure their tax filings are in order — even before the Obamacare changes come into full effect.

The IRS says that more than 90 percent of Americans turn to professional tax preparation services such as H&R Block or purchase tax software to calculate their taxes.

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