Uninsured students may face tax penalty in 2015

Rachel Christian

When Torie Kuhs was 10 years old, she was in a severe car accident that resulted in bruised lungs, head injuries and two broken legs. The other injuries healed, but Kuhs’s legs were so badly broken that she was diagnosed with arthritis when she was 17 years old and had to visit the doctor once a year to make sure her condition wasn’t getting worse.

But Kuhs never worried about how to pay her medical bills until she moved out of her parent’s house when she was 18. Her parents took Kuhs off their health insurance plan, and the junior biosocial science major has been uninsured ever since.

Kuhs said being uninsured has caused her several problems over the last three years. She hasn’t been able to afford her annual checkup, and she is still paying off a hospital visit from last year.

“I’ve had to bite the bullet a lot and just try to get through things because I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor,” Kuhs said.

But after Feb. 15, not having health insurance could also cause Kuhs to pay a $95 tax penalty. And if she is still uninsured by 2016, the penalty will increase to $325.

The Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in 2010, was created to help provide more Americans better quality health insurance. As a result, the Health Insurance Marketplace was launched last year.

The Health Insurance Marketplace, which can be found at healthcare.gov, is where uninsured individuals can enroll for insurance.

The individual fills out an application and is told whether they qualify for Medicaid or private health insurance based on their income. For those who make under a certain amount, the monthly premium, or the amount a person pays every month, is low or free.

Kuhs and her husband, Zach, make a combined total income of about $33,000 a year. On the Marketplace, they qualify for six different insurance plans with $0 monthly premiums and deductibles ranging from $8,600 to $12,600.

Many college students are covered under their parent’s insurance plans until they’re 26. But for students like Kuhs, finding an affordable plan that provides good coverage can be a challenge.

Many colleges offer student health plans. But USI’s Office Visit Plan, which all students living on campus are required to have, doesn’t count as a form of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, said Bradie Sitzman, practicing manager at the University Health Center.

People under 30 can also opt into what is known as “catastrophic insurance.”

On the Health Insurance Marketplace, these are usually the cheapest plans available, but they also come with high deductibles. An individual pays for most of the care they receive up to a certain amount, and after that, the insurance company pays its share.

Dec. 15 is the last day to enroll in coverage that starts Jan. 1, and Feb. 15 is the last day to enroll in an insurance plan either inside or outside the Marketplace for the rest of 2015.

If an individual lacks public or private health insurance after the Feb. 15 deadline, they will have to pay a tax penalty of 1 percent of their total income or $95 for each adult, whichever is higher. In 2016, the fee will increase to 2 percent or $325 per adult.

There are exemptions that an individual can file to prevent them from having to pay a tax penalty, including the hardship exemption. The parameters of the hardship exemption are wide, and the exemption can last up to a year.

Stacy Woodall, a health access adviser with St. Mary’s, said there are still many people in the community who are unaware they need to sign up for health insurance or how to go about doing it.

“The first enrollment period last year was well advertised and on the news a lot more than it’s been this year,” Woodall said. “I think many people aren’t going to realize they need to sign up until they go to file their taxes.”

There are resources in the community for individuals with questions about the Affordable Care Act.

St. Mary’s Community Health Services has licensed navigators, like Woodall, who are trained to answer questions about the ACA and the Marketplace. They can be reached at 812-485-5864.