- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2014

The administration said Monday that it was giving many businesses until 2016 to comply with the health care law, in President Obama’s latest unilateral move to try to ease the pain of his signature achievement.

Republicans said it was another example of giving businesses a break while refusing to delay the mandate for average Americans, who must have coverage by the end of March or face tax penalties.

Businesses initially were required to provide coverage for their employees this year, but the Obama administration last year pushed that deadline to 2015. On Monday, it pushed it back one more year, giving businesses with 50 to 99 employees until 2016 to offer coverage.

The Obama administration also promised to try to make it easier for businesses to comply with the mandate.

“While about 96 percent of employers are not subject to the employer responsibility provision, for those employers that are, we will continue to make the compliance process simpler and easier to navigate,” Mark J. Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy, said in announcing the change.

The Treasury also phased in the mandate among companies with 100 or more workers. Now, these employers need to provide health care coverage for only 70 percent of full-time workers in 2015 and 95 percent of them in 2016 and beyond, the department said.

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Republicans and some Democrats have said the health care mandate will discourage businesses from hiring 50 or more workers.

The latest carve-out emerges as Mr. Obama faces increasing questions about his use of executive powers.

“Once again, the president is giving a break to corporations while individuals and families are still stuck under the mandates of his health care law. And, once again, the president is rewriting law on a whim,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “If the administration doesn’t believe employers can manage the burden of the law, how can struggling families be expected to?”

If Mr. Obama is delaying the mandate for businesses, Republicans say, then individuals also should get a reprieve.

“If it’s so great, why the need for multiple delays?” said Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri Republican.

The Republican-controlled House has voted for such a delay, but the Democrat-controlled Senate has refused. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats also refused to consider any Obamacare delays when Republicans sought them as a condition for funding the government and raising the debt ceiling — producing a stalemate that led to a government shutdown last fall.

Republican lawmakers have been pressing the Internal Revenue Service on how it plans to enforce the individual mandate.

In a letter Monday, six Republican senators asked IRS Commissioner John Koskinen what tools the agency had to compel the payment of penalties that take effect when a nonexempt American refuses to obtain health insurance.

“Never before — since the founding of our Republic — has Congress adopted and the courts upheld a law which effectively forces Americans to buy a product they may not want and subjects them to a tax if they choose not to do so,” they wrote. “Given the unprecedented nature of this new era, we write with several questions regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s efforts to enforce” the mandate.

On the employer mandate, lawmakers from both parties have argued that the rule is flawed because it defines a full-time workweek as 30 hours instead of the traditional 40 hours.

They said employers were unprepared for this definition and now have to take on the expense of providing health care coverage for some workers who once were considered part-timers.

The Treasury Department said its latest delay will give employers a chance to phase in coverage. It said businesses could use the extra years to cover employees who work 35 hours or more, in preparation for covering those who work 30 to 34 hours by the time the full mandate takes effect.

A trade group for businesses affected by the mandate said the fresh delays do not attack the root of the problem.

“This announcement is just another delay that, while positive in the short term for some franchises, only postpones the inevitable and demonstrates the Affordable Care Act remains a significant problem for employers to implement,” said Steve Caldera, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association.

Also on Monday, the Treasury clarified how it defines certain workers.

Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders will not be counted as full-time employees in regard to the mandate, and teachers will not be treated as part-timers for a full year just because their schools are closed or operate for limited hours during the summer.

Seasonal employees who customarily work for six months or less generally will not be considered full-time workers.

To determine whether they are subject to the mandate, companies can use a previous, six-month period — instead of a full year — to calculate whether they have the equivalent of 100 full-time workers, the regulations said.

Employers whose health care plans take effect after Jan. 1 can begin compliance during 2015.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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