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IRS prepares to go after ObamaCare mandate fines

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FILE: March 27, 2014: A woman reads a pamphlet in Spanish at a health insurance enrollment event in Cudahy, Calif. (REUTERS)

With the ObamaCare enrollment deadline in the rearview for most, the IRS is preparing for the next step -- tracking and penalizing those who choose not, or cannot afford, to buy approved health insurance. 

How aggressive the agency will be in pursuing those fines, though, is an open question. The IRS already is under fire over last year's political targeting scandal and talk of harsh fines on the millions who still do not have insurance is a touchy subject in an election year. 

The agency says it is still drafting final tax forms and hiring staff to carry out the task, and is offering some details about how it will collect the penalties. 

For most, the penalty will not apply until early next year. Those who failed to purchase insurance by the March 31, 2014, deadline -- and are not exempt, or did not get an extension -- must inform the government on their tax forms in early 2015. 

The IRS is using a trust-but-verify approach. 

According to the agency, the IRS plans to include a specific line on the 1040 forms for taxpayers to "self-attest" whether they purchased insurance. It will most likely include a worksheet for taxpayers to calculate how much they owe -- essentially either a flat penalty or a percentage of their income. 

But the IRS also said it will aim to detect falsely reported information in the same way it does with income reported on the 1040s -- through a third party. 

Just as employers send a copy of a worker's W-2 forms to the IRS, insurance companies will send the government information on who has purchased a policy. (This could be complicated by the fact that many businesses who originally would have been required to offer insurance to employees now have until 2016.) 

For those who do not buy insurance, the question for the IRS is how far the agency goes to extract the penalty. 

The IRS has said since Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 that it will follow the letter of law for those who fail to purchase insurance -- that is, Americans will face a fine but will not have their property or bank accounts levied. 

"Congress was very careful to make sure that there was nothing too punitive in this bill," then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said in 2010. 

He said at the time that those who fail to purchase insurance will get a letter from the IRS and could have their penalty taken from subsequent tax refunds. But he also made clear the agency "can actually do collection if need be." 

But whether Americans' wages can be garnished remains unclear. 

The penalty will start relatively small, which has led to speculation that many young and healthy people will simply choose to pay it this year as opposed to buying insurance. It starts at $95 per person or 1 percent of family income, whichever is greater. But over the next couple years, it rises to $695 per person -- while aggressively pursuing these fines could prove politically unpopular, failing to do so could also increase deficit projections. 

The IRS did not respond Wednesday to a question about how many additional employees have been hired as a result of ObamaCare. 

The IRS asked in 2012 to hire an additional 1,269 employees, at a cost of $473.4 million, to prepare for the health law's implementation, according to a budget proposal it made to the Treasury Department. 

However, most the requests were for support roles such as information technology or customer service, and few were for agents, according to the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact team, after examining the 159-page budget request. 

To be sure, there is already plenty of additional paperwork. 

An estimated 44 million Americans were without insurance before ObamaCare enrollment started Oct. 1, 2013. An estimated 7.5 million enrolled through the government's exchanges, though some of them were people who were kicked off their old insurance plans. 

Some of the low- and middle-income earners who enrolled will be eligible for tax credits.