The “Fiscal Cliff” Legislation

The fiscal cliff was narrowly averted when the Senate passed a compromise bill, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, by an overwhelming 89-8 vote. Below you will discover the key features of the acts including the Bush era tax rates, estate and gift tax rates, Medicare reimbursement, and the sequester, among other issues.

Tax rate changes. Current tax rates will be permanently extended for individuals earning less than $400,000 and couples earning less than $450,000. Tax rates will revert to the Clinton-era rate of 39.6% (up from 35%) for those making more than $400,000. Wealthy taxpayers’ rates will be raised from 15% to 20% on capital gains and dividends. Married couples earning more than $300,000 and individuals earning at least $250,000 will face a phase-out of the personal exemption.

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Estate tax. The estate tax exemption will go unchanged, remaining at $5.12 million per person. The top estate tax rate will increase from 35% to 40%. These rates and exemption levels are permanently extended. The gift exemption will remain at $5 million and portability is extended.

Payroll tax. The payroll tax holiday will not be extended. The payroll tax rate will now revert to the pre-2011 level of 6.2%, up from 4.2%.

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“Doc fix.” There is a one-year “doc fix” included in the bill that prevents the scheduled 27% reimbursement cuts to Medicare physicians. The “doc fix” will not be paid through cuts to the Affordable Care Act or by beneficiaries.

Older American funding. Older Americans have gained added security by increasing funding for important Older Americans Act and other aging programs. For FY 2013, Area Agencies on Aging received $7.5 million in additional funds and Aging and Disability Resource Centers received an additional $5 million.  The National Center for Benefits and Outreach Enrollment will also see a $5 million increase in funding for FY 2013.  Medicare State Health Insurance Programs will receive $7.5 million in additional funding for FY 2013.

Sequestration. Automatic spending cuts have been delayed by two months until March 1, 2013. The cost of continuing current spending levels will be paid equally through tax revenue increases and later spending cuts. The bill reduces the total amount of the sequester by $24 billion from $1.2 trillion to $1.176 trillion.

CLASS Act Repeal.  It is reported that President Obama agreed to repeal the CLASS program in exchange for Republicans agreeing to raise the tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Many believe that CLASS would not have been implemented unless a large Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress could ratify its structure and funding formula.

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Commission on Long-Term Care. The Commission on Long-Term Care will “develop a plan for the establishment, implementation, and financing of a comprehensive, coordinated, and high-quality system that ensures the availability of long-term services and supports.”  The commission will investigate the interaction between Medicare, Medicaid, and private long-term care insurance. Demographic changes and trends should be accounted for to improve the delivery system for long-term services and supports.  Members will lobby for the interests of consumers, older adults, family caregivers, health care workers, private long-term care insurers, State insurance departments, and state Medicaid agencies.

Additional items. The bill also included a variety of tax extensions, including the deduction of state and local general sales taxes, the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition, the research credit, and the credit for energy-efficient appliances. Federal unemployment benefits would be extended for a year without a budget offset elsewhere. The extended benefit provisions and the funding for reemployment services and reemployment and eligibility assessment activities are also extended.

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Future Challenges

While this bill addresses important issues like the Bush-era tax cut expiration, it fails to offer a permanent solution to sequester and does not resolve the debt limit debate. The debt issuance suspension period will last through February 28, 2013. Congress will have to address a more permanent answer to sequestration and will also be faced with funding the federal government after the Continuing Resolution expires on March 27, 2013.

Deficit reduction will continue to be a constant issue well into the 113th Congress. In addition, entitlement reform will remain a major challenge for the 113th Congress with the Medicaid and Medicare programs facing increased scrutiny due to the pressure to decrease the federal deficit and curb spending.

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