Tribes Subject to Affordable Care Act, Court Says

Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho Indians object to new federal rules that apply certain coverage obligations to tribes under the Affordable Care Act. But their attempt to overturn them in the courts has not met with success.

A U.S. District Court in Wyoming has ruled that Indian tribes are subject to the Affordable Care Act’s large-employer mandate to provide minimum essential coverage to their workers.

The case arose after the Northern Arapaho Tribe discovered that insurance plans available through the federal exchange were superior to its own plans and began compensating employees for a portion of those premiums. The tribe balked, however, at several rules promulgated by the Treasury Department at the start of the year, when the mandate became effective, contesting in a lawsuit filed against the department and the Department of Health & Human Services provisions that “expressly subject Indian tribes to the ACA’s large-employer mandate and its reporting requirements”.

“Congress never intended to subject Indian tribes to the large-employer mandate,” the suit contended, “and the Treasury has erred by including Indian tribes within its definitions.”

The tribe further argued that if the mandate applies, its employees cannot qualify for premium tax credits and other cost-sharing incentives. “This will result in its Indian employees paying more for their insurance or, since tribal members are exempt from the individual mandate’s tax penalty, the Indian employees will simply forego health insurance altogether,” the suit said.

The government has defended the rules, citing federal laws that essentially preclude lawsuits “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax”. The court agreed.

The court also ruled against the tribe on the congressional intent argument, finding that “Congress expressed its intent that the large-employer mandate apply to all large employers, including Indian tribes”.

The mandate, incorporated in the Internal Revenue Code, generally requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance that meets a certain minimum level of coverage. Failure to comply results in the employer owing an “assessable payment.”

The Northern Arapaho employ more than 900 people in several enterprises on their Wind River Indian Reservation, including a casino, a convenience store, a gas station and a grocery store.