The health care tax credit is supposed to help small companies, but it's so confusing that many owners are forgoing the extra cash.
How much? Twenty billion dollars over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
"For any real company that has employees coming and going, figuring out this type of mess is crazy," said Ethan Wendle, CEO of Diamondback Automotive Accessories, which makes metal truck beds.
The tax credit is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and is supposed to help small businesses as they experience health care reform. Companies eligible for the tax credit are those that have 25 workers or fewer, pay average salaries of $50,000 or less and cover at least half of employee health insurance premiums.
But it has become an accounting odyssey few business owners are willing to take. The program's complicated formula has some unusual features including counting some workers as 1/15th of an employee. Even more befuddling: It actually reduces federal help if a firm insures more employees.
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Until Thursday, Wendle had no idea his Philipsburg, Pa., company could receive thousands from the credit. He'd previously explored the option but gave up, deciding the company was too large.
Part-time employees are counted differently than full-timers, and owners aren't included, bringing his number just below the 25-employee threshold. Wendle now estimates the credit might cut his tax bill by $2,500.
"Trying to figure this out could take me three days," he said. "If politicians wanted to take care of small businesses, they should just reduce tax rates across the board."
Another problem is that most tax preparers overlook the credit, because it's not even in their software, said Simon Gray, an Atlanta accountant who works closely with tech start-ups and medical firms.
And then there are people like Kim Williams, who until recently didn't even know the credit existed. The vice president of operations at jeweler Edward J. & Co., found out her Lancaster, Pa., company could claim thousands from the credit.
"That's a part-time employee," she said. "That's three more computers."
The general reluctance to apply for the program was noted in the CBO's report last week, which explained "small businesses have been slower to take advantage of the credits than originally estimated."
As of November, nearly 309,000 small businesses received the tax credit for 2010, according to the Treasury Department. Each company received an average credit of $1,407, amounting to a total of $435 million. Treasury officials expect the number of recipients for 2011 to rise to 360,000.
President Obama's proposed budget includes changes that would simplify and expand the tax credit for businesses this year.
Last week, the IRS felt it necessary to remind companies about the credit. It offers a step-by-step guide, various numerical examples, answers to frequently-asked questions, a YouTube video and a webinar.
Some are willing to wade through the quagmire. The Masonic nonprofit Shriners International in Orlando reaped $3,500 from it last year, according to former treasurer Kenneth Mueller.
Similar savings this year have made Lincoln, Calif., insurance agent Paul Harrison a fan, too, even if it required filling out a lengthy questionnaire for his accountant, Fred Crooks. Clients like Harrison don't mind the extra $30 charge Crooks charges for the service if it means receiving the average $1,500 credit.
But accountants and business owners say the credit fails to do what the IRS describes as the program's goal: encourage employers to keep providing health insurance coverage or start doing so.
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Jay Malik, an accountant in Allentown, Pa., said the credit has not inspired his business-owning clients to start or expand their employee health plans. Rather, he assumes the tax credit's largest contributions have been to accountants like him.
"This is like any other tax law," he said. "Whenever Congress passes a new law, they should call it an Accountant Employment Act. It increases work for accountants."