Battered spouses can claim subsidies for health insurance


This photo of part of the HealthCare.gov website is photographed in Washington. (Jon Elswick/AP)

The Obama administration has decided to rewrite federal tax rules to allow battered spouses who are living separately from their abusers to claim government subsidies to help them afford health plans through new insurance marketplaces.

The decision, announced by Treasury Department officials Wednesday, is an attempt to resolve a long-percolating controversy over access to the subsidies. The 2010 Affordable Care Act created these tax credits for people buying coverage through federal and state insurance exchanges — the first time the government has helped many Americans pay for private insurance. But the law says that married people may get such help only if they file their taxes jointly.

Married people who file their taxes separately have been frozen out of the help; this affects several groups of people, including those whose spouses are in prison or abandoned them, or couples in the midst of a divorce.

The most vocal and sympathetic group are battered spouses, and that is the only group that Treasury is now helping. “For victims of domestic abuse, contacting a spouse for purposes of filing a joint return may pose a risk of injury or trauma or, if the spouse is subject to a restraining order, may be legally prohibited,” Treasury officials wrote in guidance that outlines the change.

The deadline for choosing health plans on the new insurance marketplaces is Monday. With the deadline so close, Treasury officials said that battered spouses who file their taxes separately may take advantage of the rule change, even though the government has not yet completed a new regulation to support it.

ACA enrollment numbers, state-by-state

Behind the scenes, there has been dispute among Treasury officials over whether the department has any legal grounds to make this change, according to a government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about disagreements that are not public. Some officials have pointed out that there are similar rules for other programs, such as the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

Still, the rule change delighted advocates for victims of domestic violence and a few members of Congress who have been pressing for the change. “Survivors of domestic violence should not have to depend on their abuser to gain access to affordable health care,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), one of several dozen House members who had called on Treasury to switch the rules.
According to administration officials, the people benefiting from this rule change will be able to take advantage of another decision this week by the Obama administration — to allow anyone who tries but does not finish signing up for coverage on HealthCare.gov by Monday’s deadline to ask for extra time to enroll.

Federal health officials briefed reporters Wednesday on the extension, which will leave the deadline technically in place while allowing consumers to “attest” — using an honor system — that they qualify for what is known as a special enrollment period.
Republicans, consistent critics of the law, condemned the extension. “What the hell is this, a joke?” scoffed House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Listen, this is part of a long-term pattern of this administration manipulating the law for its own convenience.”

But administration officials said the ability to give people more time was needed, in case the federal Web site, HealthCare.gov, cannot accommodate everyone who tries to sign up for coverage between now and Monday.

Amy Goldstein is a national reporter for The Washington Post focused on health-care policy.
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