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Blog > A Comprehensive Guide to Affordable Care Act

A Comprehensive Guide to Affordable Care Act

VComply Editorial Team
June 14, 2024
12 minutes

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), enacted in 2010, is a comprehensive healthcare reform law that has significantly transformed the healthcare landscape in the United States. Its main goals are to expand access to health insurance, protect patients against arbitrary actions by insurance companies, promote wellness and preventive care, improve healthcare quality and system performance, expand the health workforce, and ultimately, reduce escalating healthcare costs. 

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was a landmark legislation enacted in 2010 under the Obama Administration. It combines two pivotal pieces of legislation:

  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  • The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

The U.S. healthcare system reform designed it to increase health insurance coverage, make healthcare more affordable, and improve the delivery of medical care.  The ACA aims to enhance the quality and affordability of health insurance, expand both public and private insurance coverage, and reduce healthcare costs for individuals and the government. Notably, the act has been instrumental in broadening the Medicaid program and implementing strategic reforms across the healthcare industry.

Impact on Healthcare Coverage and National Economy:

By 2013, a year prior to the ACA’s full implementation, about 15% of the U.S. population lacked health insurance, with up to 32 million individuals unable to secure coverage due to various factors, including pre-existing conditions. Once the ACA took effect in January 2014, the uninsured rate had significantly decreased to 10.9% by the end of 2016. Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the ACA would reduce the national deficit by approximately $100 billion over the ensuing decade.

This guide aims to explore the significance of the ACA within the healthcare industry, focusing on the necessity for organizations to comply with its regulations to foster a healthier nation and a more efficient healthcare system.

What is the Affordable Care Act?

Authorities established the ACA to significantly expand access to health insurance, reduce healthcare costs, and improve the quality of care. Key objectives of the ACA include:

  • Increasing access to affordable health insurance in the individual market.
  • Broadening the Medicaid program to include more adults who fall under the low-income bracket.
  • Encouraging efficient and cost-effective healthcare delivery.

By 2014, 8 million people had enrolled in health plans via the ACA Marketplaces, with a record 21.3 million signing up for 2024 coverage, underscoring the ACA’s growing role in enhancing health insurance enrollment.  So, now that we’ve looked at its broader impact, let’s get into what the ACA actually entails.

Form W-2 Reporting and IRS Form 1095-C Notifications

In terms of compliance and reporting, the ACA also introduced specific requirements for employers and individuals: https://www.irs.gov/affordable-care-act

  • Form W-2 Reporting: Employers must report the value of the health insurance coverage provided to each employee on Form W-2. This information helps the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ensure that individuals maintain minimum essential coverage as required by the ACA.
  • IRS Form 1095-C Notifications: Large employers must send Form 1095-C to employees, which provides details about the health insurance coverage offered. This form is crucial for employees to understand their coverage and for compliance with the individual mandate (before its repeal).

These forms help ensure ACA compliance and IRS enforcement.  Given the complexity of these reporting obligations, having a reliable system in place to manage and automate these tasks can be incredibly beneficial for maintaining accuracy and compliance.

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Types of Health Insurance Under ACA Compliance

Individual and Family Coverage

Individuals or families who purchase health insurance independently, rather than through an employer, must ensure their plans are ACA-compliant. Such plans must include the following:

  • Guaranteed issue: Insurers must offer coverage to all eligible applicants without considering pre-existing conditions.
  • Comprehensive coverage: Plans must include all ten essential health benefits.
  • No caps on coverage: There must be no lifetime or annual limits on coverage amounts.

Small Group Coverage

Small groups, defined as businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees, must also comply with ACA standards. These requirements mirror those for individual and family plans, including guaranteed issues for eligible businesses, coverage for pre-existing conditions, and inclusion of all essential health benefits without annual or lifetime coverage limits.

Large Group Coverage

Large groups, which are employers with more than 50 full-time employees, are subject to specific ACA compliance rules. These include:

  • Mandatory coverage: Employers must offer health insurance to all employees working 30 hours or more per week.
  • Continuous enrollment: Businesses can purchase health insurance plans at any time of the year, allowing for ongoing employee enrollment.
  • Minimum value requirement: Plans must cover at least 60% of the total average healthcare costs for each enrollee.
  • Preventative care: While not required to cover all essential health benefits, large group plans must include certain preventive services, such as screenings for cancer and infectious diseases.  Ensuring all aspects of coverage meet ACA standards can be a meticulous process. Utilizing a comprehensive compliance platform like VComply can help manage these requirements effectively.

Also Read: Importance and Benefits of Compliance in Healthcare

Legislative Response: The Affordable Care Act

In response to these widespread issues, a Democratic-majority Congress enacted the ACA, despite facing significant controversies over several of its key elements.  The ACA aimed to make insurance more accessible and fair.

  • Individual Mandate: Initially, the ACA included an individual mandate that required everyone to purchase health insurance, with penalties for non-compliance. This mandate was designed to ensure a wider pool of insured individuals, helping to lower overall costs. The mandate was later abolished.
  • Government-Regulated Insurance Exchanges: The ACA established insurance exchanges that allowed individuals and small businesses to compare and purchase health insurance plans. These exchanges are regulated by the government to ensure fair practices and reasonable prices.
  • Medicaid Expansion: The expansion of Medicaid under the ACA aimed to provide coverage to a larger segment of low-income individuals who were previously uninsured.
  • Coverage for Pre-existing Conditions: Under the ACA, insurance mandates were adjusted to require that individuals with pre-existing conditions receive coverage on equal terms as those without such conditions.
  • Minimum Coverage Requirements: The ACA set forth “10 Essential Health Benefits” that all insurance plans must cover, ensuring a baseline of healthcare services that include preventative care, emergency services, and maternity care.
  • New Taxes and Federal Control: The legislation also introduced new taxes on high-cost employer plans and increased federal oversight and control of healthcare spending to help fund the expanded coverage.

The ACA worked to expand insurance, improve coverage, and control costs.  These changes aimed to create a more equitable system for all Americans, regardless of their employment status or health conditions.

Key Features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), enacted in 2010, is a comprehensive healthcare reform law that has significantly transformed the healthcare landscape in the United States. Its main goals are to expand access to health insurance, protect patients against arbitrary actions by insurance companies, promote wellness and preventive care, improve healthcare quality and system performance, expand the health workforce, and ultimately, reduce escalating healthcare costs. 

Below are the key features of the ACA that address these goals:

  • Expanded Access to Health Insurance: The ACA introduced measures such as the Employer Mandate, which requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance to at least 95% of their full-time workers and their dependents up to age 26, or face penalties. It also established health insurance exchanges for individuals and small businesses to compare and purchase insurance plans, and significantly expanded Medicaid to cover all adults up to 138% of the federal poverty level.
  • Enhanced Consumer Protections: To protect consumers, the ACA eliminated lifetime and annual limits on essential health benefits and made it illegal to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. This law also established a rate review process to help keep health insurance premiums affordable, ensuring that increases are justified.
  • Emphasis on Prevention and Wellness: The ACA places a strong focus on preventive care, requiring most insurance plans to cover services like vaccinations and cancer screenings without copayments, coinsurance, or deductibles. It also established the Prevention and Public Health Fund to improve public health outcomes and launched a comprehensive National Prevention Strategy.
  • Improvement of Healthcare Quality and Reduction of Costs: The ACA promotes the use of electronic health records (EHR) and other health IT investments to enhance system efficiency and patient care coordination. It introduced payment reform models like accountable care organizations (ACOs) and patient-centered medical homes, incentivizing high-quality, cost-effective care. Moreover, it enforces strict oversight of insurance practices to reduce healthcare fraud and enhance marketplace competition and transparency.
  • Expansion of Healthcare Workforce: Recognizing the need for more healthcare professionals, particularly in underserved areas, the ACA provides funding for scholarships and loan repayment programs for students in health professions. It also boosts funding for community health centers, crucial in providing care to underserved populations.

These key aspects of the ACA collectively aim to ensure more Americans have access to affordable, high-quality health insurance and care, emphasizing prevention, equity, and effective medical cost management.

ACA Highlights:

  • Did you know that the ACA mandated cost-free coverage for preventive services, benefiting approximately 58 million women and 37 million children.
  • Medicaid expansion under the ACA has been adopted in 38 states and Washington DC, enhancing healthcare accessibility for individuals up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level.
  • The ACA provided $11 billion to strengthen nearly 14,000 community health center sites, serving around 29 million people across the U.S.

Overview of ACA Titles and Provisions

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is organized into several titles, each addressing different aspects of healthcare reform. This structured approach helps clarify the law’s impact on American citizens and guides the implementation of its provisions.

Title I: Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans

  • Subtitles A & B: Focus on immediate improvements and actions to expand coverage as interim solutions until full implementation.
  • Subtitles C – E: Detail the establishment of insurance exchanges, cost assistance, business rules, mandates, and miscellaneous provisions.

Provisions under Title I:

  • Elimination of Lifetime and Annual Limits: Completely abolished by 2014 to prevent medical-related bankruptcies.
  • Mandatory Essential Health Benefits: Requires all new plans to include a set of essential health benefits.
  • Prohibition of Policy Rescissions: Insurers can no longer cancel policies except for reasons related to fraud.
  • Coverage for Pre-existing Conditions: Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions was prohibited starting in 2014.
  • Preventive Services: Coverage of preventive services without out-of-pocket costs is required.
  • Extended Dependent Coverage: Dependents can remain on their parent’s plan until age 26.
  • Standardized Coverage Documents: Simplifies comparison of health insurance plans.
  • Cap on Non-Medical Spending: Insurers must spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical costs, issuing refunds if this threshold is not met.
  • Right to Rapid Appeals: Grants consumers the right to quickly appeal insurance company decisions.
  • Reinsurance for Early Retirees: Supports coverage for early retirees.
  • Online Insurance Portals: Healthcare.gov was launched to facilitate access to insurance.
  • Administrative Simplification: Centralizes medical data to improve care coordination.
  • Employer Mandates: Requires large businesses to insure full-time workers from 2015.
  • Non-Discrimination in Pricing: Insurers cannot charge more based on health status, gender, or salary.

Title II: The Role of Public Programs

This title extends Medicaid, preserves the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and simplifies enrollment processes. It aims to enhance community-based care and provides states the flexibility to improve coordination with Medicare and Medicaid, significantly reducing costs.

Title III: Improving the Quality and Efficiency of Health Care

Title III focuses on preserving, protecting, and reforming Medicare. It addresses the drug cost “donut hole,” incentivizes healthcare providers to improve care, and extends more services to rural areas.

Title IV: Prevention of Chronic Disease and Improving Public Health

This title promotes prevention and wellness through substantial funding and initiatives aimed at improving Americans’ health and reducing preventable illnesses. It emphasizes the importance of nutritional information and preventive services, especially for seniors.

Title V: Health Care Workforce

The ACA invests in the healthcare workforce by funding scholarships and loan repayment programs, helping to prepare for future healthcare needs and creating jobs.

Title VI: Transparency and Program Integrity

Enhances consumer protection by improving the transparency of nursing home ratings and reinforcing the relationship between patients and their healthcare providers.

Title VII: Improving Access to Innovative Medical Therapies

Focuses on increasing competition and innovation in drug pricing, extending discounts to low-income patients, and facilitating the creation of generic biological drugs.

Title VIII: Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (Repealed)

Initially established a voluntary insurance choice for long-term care, this title was repealed in 2013 due to sustainability concerns.

Title IX: Revenue Provisions

Addresses funding for the ACA through improved enforcement, closing tax loopholes, and implementing new taxes on high earners and the healthcare industry.

Title X: Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act

Modernizes healthcare for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, enhancing services provided under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

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Who Needs to Comply?

The ACA has broadly affected various stakeholders in the healthcare industry:

  • Insurers are now subject to rules that prevent them from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and limit their profit margins from premiums.
  • Pharmaceutical companies face a tax on brand-name drug sales, which has led to higher drug prices.
  • Employers, particularly larger ones, may face penalties for not providing affordable healthcare, despite the increased cost of healthcare provision shown in reports.
  • Unemployed Americans benefit from the ACA’s marketplace, which offers insurance plans based on household size and income.
  • Healthcare Providers have expressed mixed feelings about the ACA, with many concerned about reduced payments from Medicaid and the resultant strain on their practices.
  • Applicable Large Employers (ALEs): Defined as organizations that average 50 or more full-time equivalent employees.

*Full-Time Employee Definition: An individual who works an average of 30 hours per week or 130 hours per month.

Calculating Full-Time Equivalent Employees (FTEs)

  • Calculation of FTEs: Sum the hours worked by all part-time employees, including seasonal staff, for a given month and divide by 120. This represents the monthly count of full-time equivalents.
  • Monthly and Annual Averaging: This calculation process should be performed monthly and averaged annually to ascertain the ALE status for the current year.

Key ACA Components and Impacts

  • Coverage for Preexisting Conditions: From 2014, it is mandatory for health insurance providers to cover individuals with preexisting conditions without extra premiums. This includes:
  • Coverage for children without premium increases due to preexisting conditions or disabilities.
  • Coverage for adults who were previously uninsured for six months or more, through the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan.
  • Extended Coverage for Young Adults: Allows individuals up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans, regardless of living situation, educational status, financial independence, or marital status.

Support for Small Businesses

  • Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP): Aids small businesses in providing health insurance by offering tax credits. Eligibility includes businesses with fewer than 25 full-time employees and an average annual salary below $50,000.

Security and Coverage Enhancements Since 2014

  • Medicare Part D Beneficiaries: Reduction in the “donut hole” coverage gap, with discounts on brand-name and generic prescription drugs.
  • Preventive Services: Coverage of additional preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies without charge under new health policies.

Special Plan Considerations

  • Grandmothered Plans: Plans created between 2010 and 2014 are allowed to retain many pre-ACA terms but must include ACA protections like the ban on lifetime maximums and coverage of essential health benefits.
  • Grandfathered Plans: Plans in effect before March 23, 2010, may continue with their existing structure provided they incorporate specific ACA updates.

Understanding these elements ensures that organizations can navigate ACA regulations effectively, providing necessary health coverage while avoiding potential penalties.

Maintaining Accurate Data for Responding to IRS Penalty Notices

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), organizations are required to comply with numerous reporting requirements, which help the IRS enforce compliance through penalty notices if discrepancies or violations are found. Maintaining accurate data is crucial for effectively responding to these IRS penalty notices. 

Here are key strategies and practices that can help organizations manage this aspect of ACA compliance:

  • Implement Robust Data Collection Systems: Use advanced software to accurately collect and store essential employee data, including hours worked, health coverage offered, and employee contributions towards premiums.
  • Integrate and Synchronize Data: Ensure that data systems automatically update and synchronize information across different platforms to minimize the risk of errors.
  • Regular Data Audits and Reconciliation: Conduct audits to verify data accuracy and perform reconciliation processes periodically to ensure alignment with health coverage, payroll information, and ACA reporting standards.
  • Train Staff on ACA Compliance: Provide comprehensive training for HR and payroll staff on the latest ACA regulations and the importance of accurate data reporting. Regularly update training materials to reflect changes in regulations.
  • Develop Clear Data Retention Policies: Establish data retention policies that comply with ACA requirements, ensuring data is available for at least six years for IRS inquiries or audits.
  • Secure Data Storage: Organize and securely store historical data to make it easily accessible for future reference or audits.
  • Automate Reporting Processes: Invest in systems that automate the generation and submission of required ACA reports to the IRS, reducing human error and ensuring data consistency.
  • Establish a Response Plan for IRS Notices: Create a standardized protocol for responding to IRS notices, including immediate data review, documentation preparation, and timely communication with the IRS.
  • Leverage Legal and Tax Expertise: Consult with legal and tax professionals specializing in ACA compliance for guidance on handling IRS notices and to stay updated on best practices and emerging issues.
  • Monitor IRS Updates and Guidance: Stay informed about any updates from the IRS regarding ACA compliance, including new reporting requirements or changes to regulations. Engage with IRS newsletters, webinars, and industry conferences to gain insights from other compliance professionals.

By adhering to these ten essential strategies, organizations can effectively manage their data to ensure compliance with the ACA, respond adeptly to IRS penalty notices, and support overall organizational governance and risk management.   Adopting a cloud-based compliance management solution could streamline these processes, helping organizations maintain accurate records and respond promptly to any IRS notices.

Now that you have the gist on data management, let’s talk governance.

Must Read: Effective Ways to Simplify and Streamline Compliance in Healthcare Organizations

Governance Strategies for ACA Compliance

To ensure adherence to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulations, organizations must adopt comprehensive governance strategies. Effective governance is crucial for mitigating risks associated with non-compliance, such as financial penalties and reputational damage. Here are key strategies to help organizations maintain and reinforce ACA compliance:

Establish a Dedicated Compliance Team

  • Create a specialized team responsible for ACA compliance, consisting of members from human resources, legal, and finance departments.
  • This team should be tasked with staying updated on all ACA regulations, interpreting how they apply to the organization, and implementing necessary changes.
  • Develop and Update Compliance Policies
  • Regularly review and update internal policies to ensure they align with the latest ACA requirements.
  • Include detailed procedures for handling ACA-related tasks such as data collection, reporting, and employee communication.

Enhance Internal Communication

  • Implement an internal communication plan that regularly informs employees about their ACA rights and benefits, and updates them on any changes in the healthcare policies provided by the company.
  • Use multiple communication platforms such as emails, intranet posts, and staff meetings to ensure messages reach all employees effectively.
  • Integrate Compliance into Corporate Culture
  • Foster a culture of compliance by integrating ACA adherence into the core values and operations of the organization.
  • Encourage employees at all levels to actively participate in compliance efforts and provide feedback on policy and process effectiveness. 

And finally, here’s how this all translates into financial and operational practicality.

Leverage Technology for Compliance Management

Technology plays a crucial role in managing compliance efficiently. A robust GRC platform can automate compliance tracking, monitor regulatory changes, and generate necessary reports seamlessly.

  • Utilize technological solutions like compliance management software that can automate parts of the compliance process, such as tracking employee eligibility, monitoring coverage offers, and reporting to the IRS.
  • Ensure the technology is scalable and adaptable to changes in ACA regulations.

Conduct Regular Compliance Training

  • Provide ongoing training sessions for all employees, particularly those directly involved in compliance and reporting duties.
  • Training should cover the basics of the ACA, recent updates, organizational policies regarding ACA compliance, and the importance of data accuracy.

Perform Compliance Audits

  • Schedule regular audits to assess the organization’s adherence to ACA standards.  Automated audit processes can save time and improve accuracy, ensuring that compliance gaps are quickly identified and addressed.
  • Use audit results to identify compliance gaps and areas for improvement.
  • Establish Clear Reporting Procedures
  • Develop clear procedures for generating and submitting required reports to the IRS and other relevant authorities.
  • Ensure timely reporting to avoid penalties and catch issues before they escalate into more significant compliance failures.

Engage in Proactive Risk Management

  • Continuously identify and assess risks associated with ACA compliance, considering factors such as legislative changes and internal process adjustments.
  • Develop strategies to mitigate identified risks, such as insurance to cover potential non-compliance penalties.
  • Stay Informed About Legislative Changes
  • Monitor legislative developments related to healthcare and the ACA to anticipate and respond to changes that could impact organizational compliance.
  • Subscribe to updates from legal experts, industry associations, and governmental agencies.

Create a Feedback Mechanism

  • Establish a feedback mechanism that allows employees to report potential compliance issues anonymously.
  • Regularly review and address feedback to enhance compliance strategies and processes.
  • By implementing these governance strategies, organizations can ensure robust compliance with ACA requirements, effectively manage related risks, and maintain a strong focus on organizational integrity and ethical standards in healthcare management.

Updating and centralizing systems regularly can help maintain compliance and ensure all team members stay on the same page regarding policy changes. .

Affordable Care Act: Governance, Risk, and Compliance Services

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has revolutionized governance, risk management, and compliance (GRC) across healthcare organizations, insurance companies, and related businesses. This legislation demands a strategic reevaluation of existing frameworks to align with new healthcare standards. Below is an outline of how organizations can effectively adapt to these requirements through best practices and methodologies.

1. Integrating Governance, Risk, and Compliance within the ACA Framework

  • Governance: Organizations must ensure all activities comply with ACA mandates, setting clear objectives, efficient processes, and robust oversight mechanisms.
  • Risk Management: This involves identifying and mitigating risks associated with ACA non-compliance, which could lead to penalties or reputational damage.
  • Compliance: Establish a comprehensive framework for continuous adherence to ACA regulations through regular audits, employee training, and responsive feedback mechanisms.
  • Integrated GRC Framework: Align IT systems with ACA requirements, foster a compliance culture, and educate all stakeholders on their responsibilities under the law.  A specialized GRC platform can facilitate this integration by providing tools for comprehensive risk assessments, continuous monitoring, and effective policy enforcement.

2. Impact of ACA on Corporate Governance and Compliance Strategies

  • Increased Scrutiny: Organizations now face more scrutiny over managing health coverage and ensuring equitable access to medical services.
  • Evolving Compliance Strategies: Adapt compliance strategies to accommodate the complex nature of ACA regulations, including coverage standards and patient rights.
  • Strategic Analysis: Reevaluate governance frameworks and board compositions to include healthcare law expertise, enhance decision-making transparency, and strengthen ethical guidelines.

3. Tailored Risk Assessment Methodologies

  • Comprehensive Audits: Conduct audits of existing practices to ensure alignment with ACA mandates, focusing on patient information management, coverage decisions, and financial transactions.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Implement a monitoring system using metrics and indicators to maintain compliance levels, supported by automated auditing tools and data analytics platforms.

4. Best Practices for Ongoing ACA Compliance and Governance

  • Clear Policies and Procedures: Develop and regularly update policies to stay compliant with ACA regulations.
  • Regular Training and Compliance Committee: Conduct training programs and establish a compliance committee to enforce standards.
  • Culture of Compliance: Integrate ethical guidelines into corporate policies, promote transparency, and reward compliance-oriented behaviors.

Financial Implications and Support Mechanisms

  • New Taxes and Fees: The ACA introduced new taxes on high-income earners, indoor tanning, and medical industries, including device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Cost-Reduction Strategies: Implements strategies like improving the fairness of Medicare Advantage compared to traditional Medicare.
  • Tax Penalties: Imposes penalties on those without health insurance, with exemptions for individuals facing financial hardships or other specified conditions.
  • Federal Budget Impact: According to the Congressional Budget Office, these initiatives are projected to decrease the federal deficit by $143 billion within the first ten years.

Final Thoughts

Got the big picture? The ACA has brought significant changes and opportunities for improvements in the healthcare system. Taking an integrated approach to governance, risk management, and compliance will be essential moving forward for organizations to remain aligned with ACA standards.

Recent developments, such as political shifts, the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing disparities in health equity, have underscored the importance of healthcare decisions. These factors continue to influence public and legislative perspectives on the ACA.

For more info or coverage checks, HealthCare.gov is a great resource. This platform allows users to apply for insurance, check their eligibility, and make necessary adjustments to their insurance status.  Using a streamlined GRC solution like VComply will support organizations in maintaining compliance, managing risks, and ensuring effective governance. Click here for a free demo!