Tax season offers another chance to enroll in Obamacare

     Mary Arthur, executive director of the Campaign for Working Families in Philadelphia, works on a client's taxes while that client gets information on how to sign up for health coverage. (Jessica McDonald/WHYY)

    Mary Arthur, executive director of the Campaign for Working Families in Philadelphia, works on a client's taxes while that client gets information on how to sign up for health coverage. (Jessica McDonald/WHYY)

    More than usual this year, tax season is likely to pack an unpleasant punch. It’s the first time under the Affordable Care Act that Americans will have to pay a fine if they’ve gone uninsured.

    But for those caught off guard, the Obama administration is once again allowing people to sign up for coverage on the marketplace.

    The special tax-season enrollment period will go through April 30, allowing those who have just learned about the fine as they’ve filed their taxes to avoid heftier penalties next year.

    “Most people, once they get their taxes done, they’re kind of in shock that there is a penalty,” said Mary Arthur, the executive director of the Campaign for Working Families, which provides free tax preparation to low-income Philadelphians. “We are trying to educate them to let them know there’s still time to get it for next year, because the penalties will increase.”

    For 2014, the fine is $95 per person, or 1 percent of income, whichever is higher. In 2015, those rates rise to $325 or 2 percent of income.

    Due to the unique circumstances, the group has partnered with the nonprofit Enroll America to offer clients such as Mary Brown of North Philadelphia free tax preparation and assistance navigating the insurance signup process.

    “They just brought it to my attention that I was going to be penalized,” she said of her arrival at the Center City tax prep site. Brown was especially surprised to learn that she is also responsible for the fines of her two uninsured adult children.

    “I know, it leaves me speechless, too,” said Arthur, as she relayed the bad news to Brown. “It’s a hard message to deliver.”

    The collective $285 penalty slashed her refund by more than a third.

    And Brown is not alone. Arthur said, so far this year, the Campaign for Working Families has helped file returns for 1,700 people who didn’t have insurance and have been penalized. About a quarter weren’t aware of the fine.

    Because Brown has been uninsured for more than two months this year, she will owe a fine in 2015. But if she takes advantage of the special enrollment period, she can avoid the bulk of it.

    Fully informed, Brown was excited at the prospect of getting coverage.

    “God forbid I fall down on the street,” she said, “I need insurance.”

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