The IRS Built an Obamacare Tax Form Simulator

For every fancy, there is a simulator. There are simulators for flying, cities, trains and even goats.

If that wasn’t enough, the Internal Revenue Service added its own entry to the popular genre: an Obamacare tax form simulator, “Get that Credit!”

Massachusetts-based defense contractor MITRE Corporation built the simulator on behalf of the taxing agency. The simulator was designed to help identify problems people might have with the Affordable Care Act tax credit form ahead of its initial roll out during the 2015 tax filing season, records show. More than 5.5 million people filled out the form last year.

The main game starts with a partially filled out 1040 and blank Obamacare tax credit form (the 8962 form). At the beginning of the game, players are assigned to one of three profiles that listed a change to their income as a percent of the federal poverty level.

Using a 3D interface, players can seek help from an IRS toll-free tax help line, the IRS taxpayer assistance center or the IRS’s Affordable Care Act website and related web pages that were accessed with an emulated Google site. Half of the participants used no support; no one called the phone-line; and, 13 participants used only the website.

The game detects when the player has completed the form and the player chooses how to file, OR they can select to have a tax preparation service complete and file their taxes.

The score is presented at the end.

Fun.

But the game itself was a mess. Players complained that it was unclear how to tell the game that they had finished the tax forms, and it was difficult to switch between instructions and tax forms. Some players said that reading the small text was difficult and other players said the game locked up or crashed on the final survey.

Interestingly, players were predominately female, well educated and married. The average household income of players was between $110,000 and $120,000 per year — unlikely the demographic that takes advantage of Obamacare tax credits.

If you’re wondering, and I’m sure you are, this is the equation that calculated the “Get that Credit!” final score:

The simulator cost $300,000. Sixty-nine volunteers from MITRE and the IRS tested the game.

According to a IRS presentation obtained through a records request, the simulator yielded data that could identify “potential customer problems with the filing process.” The game, according to the presentation, was likely to “draw more participants via Internet” and collects real-time “taxpayer behavior data … rather than vague or abstracted memories or opinions from surveys/focus groups.”

The IRS issued the following statement about “Get that Credit!”:

“In 2014, the IRS wanted to better understand potential taxpayer questions and needs for assistance in filling out the new Form 8962. This was a particularly complex form that taxpayers had to use to claim the premium tax credit for the first time during the 2015 filing season. Taxpayers had to face the challenging situation of navigating more than 100 different data fields on the forms for the first time.

As part of IRS efforts to simplify the form and ease taxpayer burden, research was conducted in conjunction with a private contractor using their proprietary electronic simulation platform. This was a simulation exercise. It’s incorrect to call it a ‘game.’ The simulation helped gauge the complexity and burden associated with the new form.

The IRS has not used this simulation exercise elsewhere and has no current plans to do so.”

MITRE, though a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

I asked for a copy of the simulator in my records request but was denied. If you know anything else about the development of the simulator, please email me.

Read the IRS’s “Get That Credit!” presentation below:

thumbnail of simulator

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