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Bipartisan Fix Possible on Obamacare Employer Requirements

By Rebecca Adams, CQ Roll Call

April 14, 2015 -- Something unusual happened last week at the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee: The top Democrat on the panel, one of the most liberal members of Congress, requested a hearing on a GOP bill by a leading conservative critic of the health care law.

Rep. Jim McDermott, the Washington congressman who would prefer a publicly run health care system, called for a hearing on a bill by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., who isn't shy in public criticisms of the health law and wants to revise the reporting requirements for employers who offer coverage to their workers. 

At the start of the hearing, McDermott said it was time to move on from complaining about the law to trying to fix it. He said it's not the law he would have written and invited Republicans to "move beyond the cynical attacks on this law and join me in making it better."

McDermott added in an interview, "I'm just pleased she's talking about doing something positive."

Black is shopping the legislation around to Democrats in both the House and Senate. She is getting input from the Department of Treasury before finalizing the details. 

"We hope that the bill will have a Democratic lead cosponsor because this issue cuts across party lines and impacts businesses in every district," said Black spokesman Jonathan Frank. 

It's not clear whether McDermott will sign on. But he's encouraging other Democrats to hear out Black. 

The issue could eventually become one of only a handful connected to the health law that have attracted bipartisan support. Soon after the law was enacted, Republicans and Democrats passed a law in 2011 (PL 112-9) that got rid of a paperwork requirement mandate that would have required businesses to report to the IRS all of their transactions with vendors totaling $600 or more in a year. Many Democrats have supported GOP efforts to repeal a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices and change the definition of full-time employment from the law's 30 hours a week to the more standard 40 hours. 

That doesn't necessarily mean that President Barack Obama will sign any of those bills, but the growing list of bipartisan requests for changes could get more attention in the future.

Under the law, companies have to report which workers have medical coverage. 

Restaurant chain owner Scott Womack, testifying for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said at the hearing that he did not initially track the details that the health care law requires. Employers must report to the IRS the personal information of every covered person, including the birthdates and Social Security numbers of workers' children. 

Womack said his accounting team spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out what they needed to report, and it's still unclear to him whether the federal government can use the data. His company collected the information on a monthly basis so that it is current for all of the workers in his high-turnover restaurant business. The company will then report all the information at the end of every year.

"The reporting required is costly, complex, and confusing," said Womack. "All employers have had to either create or buy new software as we have, or contract with a service to do so."

Womack spent $8,000 on software that he hopes will comply with reporting requirements. 

Black is trying to ease the reporting for employers and create a system that will prevent some people who are not eligible for subsidies—such as workers whose companies offer coverage—from getting subsidy payments. The congresswoman is still working on the details of her bill but hopes to introduce it within the next month or two.

Black wants to allow companies to report to the federal government at the beginning of a year whether they offer coverage. If a worker went to sign up for individual coverage in the new health care marketplace, the person would get an alert that the employer offers health insurance that the worker might want to enroll in. 

The health law does not allow workers or their families to get federal subsidies if their companies offer affordable coverage that meets coverage requirements in the law. But many workers don't realize that. 

Under the current system, workers may mistakenly get subsidies that they are not entitled to receive and then have to pay back the money when they file their taxes. Some who have to repay subsidies may be frustrated at their employers as well as the federal government. 

McDermott said in the interview that it's nice to see that Republicans are "at least doing something different than they've done before" and offering ideas about fixing the law instead of focused solely on repealing it. 

"I was trying to be at least sort of reaching out to be nice to see if we could get something done around here," he said. "We've certainly had our troubles getting something done, so it's really a situation that when someone does something positive you want to acknowledge it."

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