Improper Payments:

Improvements Needed in CMS and IRS Controls over Health Insurance Premium Tax Credit

GAO-17-467: Published: Jul 13, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2017.

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What GAO Found

In fiscal year 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) assessed its advance premium tax credit (PTC) program as susceptible to significant improper payments. CMS instituted a qualitative method for assessing the susceptibility of its program that was consistent with requirements, including assessing each of the nine required qualitative risk factors. However, CMS stated that it may not report improper payment estimates for the PTC program as required until at least fiscal year 2022 because of the complexity and timing of the process for developing such estimates. As a result, HHS's overall improper payments estimate will continue to be understated, and Congress and others will continue to lack key payment integrity information for monitoring HHS's improper payments. The fiscal year 2016 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) assessment for its PTC program was not consistent with requirements nor did it demonstrate whether the program met applicable thresholds for susceptibility to significant improper payments. Until IRS conducts an appropriate assessment, it will remain uncertain whether IRS should estimate the amount of improper payments for its PTC program.

Although CMS properly designed and implemented control activities related to the accuracy of advance PTC payments, it did not properly design control activities related to preventing and detecting improper payments of advance PTC, such as verifying individuals' eligibility. As a result, CMS is at increased risk of making improper payments of advance PTC to issuers on behalf of individuals.

CMS Key Control Activities Related to Preventing and Detecting Improper Payments of Advance PTC

CMS Key Control Activities Related to Preventing and Detecting Improper Payments of Advance PTC

aGAO did not evaluate whether control activities that were not properly designed were operating as designed.

IRS did not design and implement certain key control activities related to preventing and detecting PTC improper payments, including recovering excess advance PTC overpayments. For example, IRS did not properly design procedures to routinely check for duplicate employer- or government-sponsored coverage. In addition, in 2015 and 2016, IRS used an ad hoc process for notifying nonfilers of the requirement to file tax returns; however, IRS did not establish procedures for sending these notices regularly during each filing season to facilitate compliance. Without properly designed control activities related to PTC, IRS is at increased risk of making improper payments to individuals.

IRS faces challenges that affect its ability to design and implement procedures related to preventing and detecting PTC improper payments, including recovering advance PTC overpayments and reimbursing advance PTC underpayments. For example, IRS maintains that reduced resources have impaired its ability to implement needed controls. Further, statutory limitations contributed to IRS's inability to fully collect excess advance PTC overpayments and reimburse PTC underpayments and to automatically correct errors in tax returns. GAO previously suggested that IRS seek legislative authority to correct tax returns at filing based on marketplace data. The Department of the Treasury, on behalf of IRS, has submitted proposals for congressional consideration to permit IRS to correct such errors where individuals' information on tax returns does not match corresponding information provided in government databases. Congress has not yet granted this broad authority.

IRS Key Control Activities for Preventing and Detecting Improper Payments of PTC

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aExcept for control activities related to IRS's review of tax returns that contain errors, GAO did not evaluate whether other control activities that were not properly designed were operating as designed.

Why GAO Did This Study 

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) aims to expand health insurance coverage and affordability. PPACA provides eligible individuals with PTC to help cover the cost of premiums for health plans purchased through a marketplace. CMS maintains the federally facilitated marketplace known as HealthCare.gov. IRS is responsible for processing PTC-related amounts on tax returns. The estimated fiscal year 2016 net outlay for PTC that was refunded to taxpayers was about $24 billion, while the estimated revenue effect from PTC that taxpayers used to reduce their tax liabilities was about $2 billion. 

GAO was asked to examine improper payments related to PTC. This report assesses the extent to which (1) CMS and IRS assessed the susceptibility of their PTC programs to significant improper payments; (2) CMS properly designed and implemented key control activities related to preventing and detecting improper payments of advance PTC; and (3) IRS properly designed and implemented key control activities related to preventing and detecting improper payments of PTC, including recovering overpayments and reimbursing underpayments of PTC. 

GAO reviewed the improper payment susceptibility assessments completed by CMS and IRS; interviewed agency officials; reviewed policies and procedures; and tested statistical samples of (1) CMS applications with advance PTC transactions during the 2016 open enrollment period and (2) income tax returns with PTC transactions processed during the first 9 months of fiscal year 2016. 

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 10 recommendations to HHS. Of these, 2 recommendations are related to complying with annual reporting of advance PTC improper payments estimates, including assuring that CMS expedites the process for reporting such estimates. The 8 remaining recommendations address improving control activities related to eligibility determinations and calculations of advance PTC based on incomes and family sizes. HHS concurred with 7 of the recommendations and neither agreed nor disagreed with the remaining 3 recommendations, which related to improving control activities for verifying identities of individuals, preventing duplicate coverage of individuals receiving minimum essential coverage through their employers, and verifying household incomes and family sizes. GAO continues to believe that actions to implement these 3 recommendations are needed as discussed in the report.

GAO is also making 5 recommendations to IRS. Of these, 1 recommendation focuses on properly assessing the susceptibility of the PTC program to significant improper payments. The remaining 4 recommendations address improving control activities related to processing PTC information on tax returns, such as recovering advance PTC made for individuals who do not meet the eligibility requirements for citizenship or lawful presence. IRS agreed with 2 recommendations, partially agreed with 2 other recommendations, and disagreed with the remaining recommendation. For the 2 partial concurrences, GAO continues to believe that actions to fully implement these recommendations are needed as discussed in the report. Although IRS disagreed with the 1 recommendation related to reviewing tax returns to those who are not reporting shared responsibility payments, the actions IRS described in its comments, if implemented effectively, would address the recommendation.

For more information, contact Beryl H. Davis at (202) 512-2623 or davisbh@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that in FY 2016, it completed a risk assessment of the advance PTC program and reported results in the FY 2016 Agency Financial Report. Currently, HHS is unable to specify the year the rate and amount will be reported due to the complexity and timing of the error rate measurement methodology process, which involves conducting pilot testing, using those pilots to refine the methodology, and then undergoing the rulemaking process before implementing the methodology to ensure accurate and efficient reporting of an improper payment rate.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to annually report improper payment estimates and error rates for the advance PTC program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that it reported information on the status of the advance PTC risk assessment in the FY 2014 to FY 2016 Agency Financial Reports. Now that the program's improper payment risk assessment is completed, HHS will continue to report on its progress in designing and implementing an improper payment estimate for the advance PTC program in future Agency Financial Reports.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, and until annual reporting of improper payment estimates and error rates for the advance PTC program is performed, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to disclose significant matters relating to the Improper Payments Information Act (IPIA) estimation, compliance, and reporting objectives for the advance PTC program in the agency financial report, including CMS's progress and timeline for expediting the achievement of those objectives and the basis for any delays in meeting IPIA requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. However, regarding verification of filer identity, HHS stated that for individuals starting a new application via phone, the call center representatives use verbal attestations for identity verifications from individuals. HHS stated that for paper applications, individuals must provide names and complete addresses as well as other information. In addition, HHS stated that individuals must attest that the information they provide on all applications is accurate by signing under penalty of perjury. GAO continues to believe that because CMS does not validate the identities of individuals who apply by phone or mail, CMS is vulnerable to enrolling ineligible individuals in qualified health plans with advance PTC.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to design and implement procedures for verifying the identities of phone and mail applicants to reasonably assure that ineligible individuals are not enrolled in qualified health plans in the marketplaces or provided advance PTC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that its previous assessments of available electronic data sources did not identify any comprehensive national data source for verifying residency. HHS recently conducted a study to assess the feasibility of developing an employer-sponsored coverage database and determined that development would be costly and highly burdensome given available resources. Additionally, HHS stated that it would impose extra burden on employers to collect the information needed to build a comprehensive employer-sponsored coverage database. HHS will continue to assess and document whether any sufficiently reliable data sources exist and examine the feasibility of implementation.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to assess and document the feasibility and availability of obtaining sufficiently reliable data to verify individuals' residencies and lack of minimum essential coverage from nonfederal employers and, if appropriate, design and implement procedures for using such data in its verification processes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. However, regarding sending notices to nonfederal employers, HHS stated that it is evaluating its 2016 employer notice program to determine the best approach for notifying employers in the future. Such an evaluation may provide useful information; however, GAO continues to believe that designing and implementing procedures for sending notices to nonfederal employers and terminating advance PTC to individuals with access to employer-sponsored coverage can reduce the risk of providing advance PTC to issuers on behalf of ineligible individuals.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to design and implement procedures for sending notices to nonfederal employers routinely and terminating advance PTC for individuals who have access to minimum essential coverage from their employers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that its preliminary analysis indicates that identifying government sponsored coverage for individuals receiving Medicaid and CHIP in Federally-facilitated Exchange states outside of the state where the applicant is enrolled in coverage would add several months to the time needed to execute the process of identifying duplicate enrollees and ending their advance PTC. Such additional time would significantly reduce the timeliness and effectiveness of the process and lead to an increase in burden on the state Medicaid systems used to verify duplicate coverage. HHS stated that it will continue this analysis and document the feasibility of approaches for identifying duplicate government sponsored coverage for individuals receiving Medicaid and CHIP coverage in Federally-facilitated Exchange states outside the application state of the consumer as well as periodically verifying individual's continued eligibility. In addition, HHS stated that it has implemented a Periodic Data Matching process to proactively identify consumers who may be receiving Minimum Essential Coverage through Medicare, and thus are no longer eligible for financial assistance to help pay for Exchange coverage. HHS is also exploring approaches to identifying Exchange enrollees who may be deceased and should thus be disenrolled from coverage.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to assess and document the feasibility of approaches for (1) identifying duplicate government-sponsored coverage for individuals receiving Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program coverage in federally facilitated marketplace states outside of the states where they attest to residing and (2) periodically verifying individuals' continued eligibility by working with other government agencies to identify changes in life circumstances that affect advance PTC9 eligibility--such as commencement of duplicate coverage or deaths-- that may occur during the plan year and, if appropriate, design and implement these verification processes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that it continues to assess the feasibility of terminating advance PTC at various times of the month as a result of consumers not resolving inconsistencies. HHS currently terminates advance PTC between the 1st and 15th of the month following the end of the inconsistency clock in order to accommodate issuer processes. HHS stated that processing in these cohorts also allows for operational and quality efficiencies for HHS since processes can be completed in batches.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to assess and document the feasibility of approaches for terminating advance PTC on a timelier basis and, as appropriate, design and implement procedures for improving the timeliness of terminations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  8. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that the IRS provides information to Exchanges on consumers who received advance PTC in the prior coverage year but have not taken the necessary steps to file a tax return and reconcile advance PTC. Beginning in Open Enrollment for 2018, the Federally-facilitated Exchange will end advance PTC on behalf of the tax filers who have not filed or have not reconciled advance PTC when that information is reported to the Exchange by IRS.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to design and implement procedures for verifying compliance with applicable tax filing requirements--including the filing of the federal tax return and the Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit--necessary for individuals to continue to be eligible for advance PTC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation. HHS stated that it is continually monitoring the operations of the Exchange and has taken several steps to analyze and strengthen current rules and procedures to ensure that only those who are eligible enroll through special enrollment periods. While special enrollment periods provide a criticial pathway to coverage for qualified individuals who experience qualifying events, it's equally important that special enrollment periods are not misused or abused. HHS also stated that in April 2017, it issued a final rule on Market Stabilization that promotes program integrity by requiring individuals to submit supporting documentation for special enrollment periods and ensures that only those who are eligible are able to enroll. It will encourage individuals to stay enrolled in coverage all year, reducing gaps in coverage and resulting in fewer individual mandate penalties and help to lower premiums. This process will begin in June 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to design and implement procedures for verifying major life changes using documentation submitted by applicants enrolling during special enrollment periods.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  10. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. However, regarding verification of household income and family sizes, HHS stated that as part of its eligibility verification requirements, it verifies consumer-reported income with data from IRS. However, HHS stated that because household incomes may fluctuate year to year, it is difficult for consumers to project income for the year in advance. According to HHS, in instances where applicant-reported income is higher than the IRS data, HHS accepts the consumer attestation. However, HHS stated that it will assess the feasibility and burden on individuals of setting a reasonable threshold for the generation of annual household income inconsistencies that would require additional verification for consumer-attested income that significantly exceeds income amounts reported by IRS or other third party sources. We believe that such an evaluation is a reasonable step to address our recommendation to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the program related to verification of household income. In addition, HHS stated that it currently accepts attestation when the family size provided by the individual does not match IRS's records. HHS stated that establishing a process to verify family size with IRS would require significant operational and privacy complexity. While we recognize that there may be certain complexities in the verification of family sizes, it is important that CMS develop policies and procedures to reasonably assure that such verifications are made on a regular basis.

    Recommendation: To improve annual reporting on PTC improper payments, control activities related to eligibility determinations, and calculations of advance PTC, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Administrator of CMS to design and implement procedures for verifying with IRS (1) household incomes, when attested income amounts significantly exceed income amounts reported by IRS or other third-party sources, and (2) family sizes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  11. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The IRS partially agreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that instances in which the advance payment of the PTC is greater than or equal to the amount of the PTC claimed on the tax return do not result in the IRS increasing the outlay related to PTC, and so by definition these occurrences are not subject to IPIA, as amended. The IRS understands and shares the concern about the misreporting of items on tax returns, including cases where the taxpayer misreports excess advance PTC, but the IRS has many compliance programs that operate outside the scope of IPIA and that address taxpayer error and noncompliance. The IRS conducted its fiscal year 2016 PTC improper payment risk assessment consistent with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which concurred with our methodology. However, the IRS is committed to discussing with OMB a future change to the agreed-upon procedures to assessing PTC improper payments as part of our larger and ongoing discussions with OMB about the administration of refundable tax credits and the challenges of reporting those credits through the framework of improper payments legislation and guidance.

    Recommendation: To comply with improper payments reporting requirements and improve procedures related to processing PTC information on tax returns, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the appropriate officials to assess the program against applicable IPIA-defined thresholds and conclude on its susceptibility to significant improper payments, and revise the scope of its improper payments susceptibility assessment for the PTC program to include instances in which advance PTC is greater than or equal to the amount of PTC claimed on the tax return. If the program meets the IPIA definition for being susceptible to significant improper payments based on this assessment, estimate and report improper payments associated with the PTC program consistent with IPIA requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: The IRS agreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that it will evaluate the feasibility of receiving information from the marketplaces, and the value of using that information in its processes. If IRS determines that obtaining the data would be feasible and using it would be cost-effective, IRS will consult with Treasury on regulations or other guidance needed to obtain the information. Although eligibility determinations for the advance PTC are made outside the IRS's purview, the IRS has taken steps to ensure that the PTC is administered fairly and properly. For example, IRS has updated guidance in Publication 974, Premium Tax Credit, to clarify that any advance payment of the PTC made on behalf of individuals who did not meet the citizenship or lawful presence requirements must be repaid in full. Taxpayers are required to report the excess advance PTC on their tax returns. If they do not, IRS will address it through post-filing compliance. We will request and review supporting documentation for IRS's reported actions.

    Recommendation: To comply with improper payments reporting requirements and improve procedures related to processing PTC information on tax returns, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the appropriate officials to assess and document the feasibility of approaches for incorporating information from the marketplaces on individuals who did not demonstrate that they met the eligibility requirements for citizenship or lawful presence in the tax compliance process. If determined feasible, IRS should work with Treasury to require marketplaces to periodically provide such information on individuals and use such information to recover advance PTC made for those individuals.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  13. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: IRS agreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that it developed an Affordable Care Act (ACA) Compliance Strategy in October 2016, which included post-filing checks for the PTC. The IRS must rely upon post refund checks to verify if taxpayers had other healthcare coverage and therefore were not eligible to claim the PTC. For tax year 2017 the IRS plans to implement additional capabilities to evaluate coverage. The IRS will continue to evaluate the results and design and implement cost effective policies and procedures that routinely identify individuals inappropriately receiving PTC, as warranted.

    Recommendation: To comply with improper payments reporting requirements and improve procedures related to processing PTC information on tax returns, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the appropriate officials to assess whether IRS should require its examiners to verify health care coverage of individuals to determine eligibility for PTC. To do this, IRS should complete its evaluation of the level of noncompliance related to duplicate health insurance coverage. Based on this evaluation and if cost effective, IRS should design and implement formal policies and procedures to routinely identify individuals inappropriately receiving PTC because of their eligibility for or enrollment in health care programs outside of the marketplaces and notify such individuals of their ineligibility for PTC.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  14. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: IRS disagreed with this recommendation. However, IRS stated that, among other things, it has drafted a new IRM section for examiners who are responsible for reviewing tax returns to determine whether health insurance is reflected for the taxpayer for the entire year, and for identifying and assessing SRP on taxpayers who are not appropriately reporting SRP on their tax returns. IRS stated that the IRM section is pending approval by Exam Policy. Although IRS stated that it disagreed with our recommendation, we believe that the actions that IRS described in its response to our draft report would sufficiently address our recommendation if implemented effectively.

    Recommendation: To comply with improper payments reporting requirements and improve procedures related to processing PTC information on tax returns, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the appropriate officials to design and implement procedures in the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) for examiners in the post-filing compliance units to review tax returns for health insurance coverage for the entire year, and to identify and assess individual shared responsibility payments (SRP) from those who are not appropriately reporting SRPs on their tax returns.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  15. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The IRS partially agreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that using a research-based approach to evaluate the 2015 tax filing season, it developed a post-compliance process for sending notices to individuals who received advance PTC paid on their behalf in the previous calendar year but failed to file a tax return and also to those who requested an extension to file. IRS stated that being flexible in its approach has allowed IRS to refine the process to improve efficiency and effectiveness. IRS further stated that based on the 2017 research analysis, IRS will determine whether the information should be included in an existing IRM. We agree that IRS should review its process to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its operations. However, we continue to believe that designing and implementing procedures to regularly notify non-filers of the need to file to continue receiving advance PTC decreases the risk that the ad hoc notification process will not be followed consistently in each filing season.

    Recommendation: To comply with improper payments reporting requirements and improve procedures related to processing PTC information on tax returns, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the appropriate officials to design and implement procedures in the IRM to regularly notify nonfilers of the requirement to file tax returns in order to continue to receive advance PTC in the future.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

 

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