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Watchdog warns that health care subsidies vulnerable to fraud

– Government subsidies to help Americans buy insurance under the health care overhaul may be vulnerable to fraud, a Treasury Department watchdog warned Tuesday in the latest indication that troubles are far from over for President Barack Obama’s signature legislation.

The rollout of the law has already been hurt by canceled policies and problems with the federal website used by people to enroll in health plans, causing political headaches for the White House and for Democrats in Congress.

The new problems concern subsidies available to low- and medium-income people who buy insurance through state-based exchanges that opened in October.

Those subsidies are administered by the Internal Revenue Service in the form of tax credits, and that’s where the trouble arises.

“The IRS’ existing fraud detection system may not be capable of identifying (Affordable Care Act) refund fraud or schemes prior to the issuance of tax return refunds,” said the report by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

“The IRS reported that the long-term limitations of its existing fraud detection system include its inability to keep pace with increasing levels of fraud,” the report said.

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel was more upbeat: “The IRS has a strong, effective system in place for administering the premium tax credit. We have a proven track record of safely and securely transmitting federal tax information, and we have a robust and secure process in place to deliver this important credit for taxpayers.”

The president had a sunnier view, too. Seeking to regroup from the law’s disastrous rollout, Obama said Tuesday that the government website is working well “for the vast majority of users.”

He acknowledged that other problems will likely arise, but “when they do, we’ll fix those, too.”

Obama insisted Tuesday that the sweeping overhaul is working and warned Republican critics that he would fight any efforts to strip away its protections.

“We’re not repealing it as long as I’m president,” Obama said during a health care event at the White House. “If I have to fight another three years to make sure this law works, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Also Tuesday, the administration released a 50-state report saying that nearly 1.5 million people were found eligible for Medicaid during October.

As website problems slowed sign-ups for subsidized private coverage, the safety-net program for low-income people saw a nearly 16 percent increase in states that have agreed to expand it, the Department of Health and Human Services reported.

Any problems with the health care tax credits probably won’t come to light until taxpayers file their 2014 tax returns in the spring of 2015.

Most of the credits will be paid directly to health insurance companies, with taxpayers seeing the benefit in reduced premiums. Other taxpayers, however, can claim the credits on their federal tax returns, starting with 2014 returns.

Under the health care law, the IRS is in charge of verifying eligibility for the tax credit and calculating the amount. Taxpayers, however, will have to be careful when they apply for the credits. If taxpayers’ incomes increase while they are receiving the credit, and they get a larger credit than they are entitled to, they may have to repay some or all of the credit when they file their federal tax returns.

On the other hand, if taxpayers get a smaller credit than they are entitled to, they can get the difference in the form of a tax refund.

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