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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Health - Law Mandate Put Off Again - No Fines for Most Employers Until 2016 as Firms Pressure White House in Wake of Troubled Rollout

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most employers won't face a fine next year if they fail to offer workers health insurance, the Obama administration said Monday, in the latest big delay of the health-law rollout.

The Treasury Department, in regulations outlining the Affordable Care Act, said employers with 50 to 99 full-time workers won't have to comply with the law's requirement to provide insurance or pay a fee until 2016. Companies with more workers could avoid some penalties in 2015 if they showed they were offering coverage to at least 70% of full-time workers.

The move came after employers pressured the Obama administration to peel back the law's insurance requirements. Some firms had trimmed workers' hours to below 30 hours a week to avoid paying a penalty if they didn't offer insurance.

A senior administration official said the shift was a response to businesses' concerns, though the official said no one reason was behind the change.

Under the original 2010 health law, employers with the equivalent of at least 50 full-time workers had to offer coverage or pay a penalty starting at $2,000 a worker beginning in 2014. Last year, the administration delayed the requirement for the first time by moving it to 2015.

The new rules for companies with 50 to 99 workers would cover about 2% of all U.S. businesses, which include 7% of workers, or 7.9 million people, according to 2011 Census figures compiled by the Small Business Administration. The rules for companies with 100 or more workers affect another 2% of businesses, which employ more than 74 million people.
 
Monday's announcement of fresh changes comes as the administration weighs how much of the law to adjust in the wake of its troubled rollout. Health care is expected to be a central issue in the November midterm elections.
 
Many employers have been fierce critics of the law, and some praised the administration for giving them the flexibility they sought.
 
"I'm pretty pleasantly astounded by what I've seen on first read here," said Neil Trautwein, a vice president and lobbyist with the National Retail Federation. "This is really the antithesis of the botched rollout of the exchanges, and I think they have tried mightily to smooth the impact of the penalty-mandate structure on the business community."
 
GOP lawmakers, who oppose the law, seized on the delay to argue the administration should relax other key provisions, including the requirement that individuals carry coverage or pay a penalty, which has been in effect since the beginning of this year.
 
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, "It's time to extend that exemption to families and individuals—not just businesses."
 
The administration also signaled on Monday that big employers that currently offer coverage voluntarily will likely see simpler rules for how to prove that. Full regulations detailing the reporting requirements haven't been released.
 
Most large employers offer coverage to their workers, though not all employees accept it, and some companies exclude blocs of workers. Many of the companies that don't cover workers are lower-wage, smaller employers concentrated in the hospitality, retail and agriculture sectors. Some of them have begun trimming workers' hours to reduce firms' exposure to penalties.
 
Under the final rule released Monday, companies would be allowed to offer coverage to a subset of employees, such as those working 35 hours or more a week, during the phasing-in year.
 
Senior Treasury officials said the shift was aimed at giving more time for smaller employers to adjust, and for all firms to consider the number of hours their employees worked and whether they should be cutting them. The officials said firms that wanted to use the new phase-in period would have to certify they hadn't shrunk employee numbers in order to qualify.
 
The Treasury also set new rules for how the requirement would apply to workers such as volunteers and seasonal employees, saying that employers wouldn't be penalized for failing to offer those people coverage, regardless of the number of hours they were working.
 
The new regulations are likely to help employers who currently don't provide health coverage to certain employee groups by allowing them to temporarily continue that practice for at least some workers, said Paul Hamburger, a health-care attorney at Proskauer Rose in Washington.
 
But employers remain subject to a $3,000 penalty each time one of those workers buys coverage on a state health-care exchange and qualifies for subsidized premiums, he said, after a preliminary review of the new regulations.

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