By Trevor Graff, Casper Star-Tribune Communications
A federal court in Casper considered blocking an Internal Revenue Service rule that Northern Arapaho officials say could cause Native Americans to pay more for insurance or lose health care benefits.
Tribal leaders say the proposed IRS interpretation of a mandate for large employers to provide health care coverage would unlawfully exempt tribal members who work for the Northern Arapaho from receiving tax credits and cost-sharing benefits granted Native Americans in the Affordable Care Act.
Kelly Rudd, the Northern Arapaho attorney, said the agency’s interpretation could subject the tribe to more than $1.5 million in tax penalties if its business entities, including Wind River Casino, do not offer employer-sponsored insurance.
“They proposed a one-size-fits-all, large-employer mandate that doesn’t fit Congress’ purpose of bringing health care to working-class Native Americans,” Rudd said.
He said the tribe insures employees with plans from the federal health insurance marketplace and pays 80 percent of the premium costs.
Those policies provide better coverage than the tribe could purchase independently, Rudd said.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say the rule-making is based on Congress’ intent to promote employer-sponsored health coverage under the ACA.
Jacek Pruski, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, told the court that the IRS rule-making is in compliance with the purpose of the ACA.
He said the court should reject the motion to block enforcement of the rule because the tribe did not establish the strength of its case based on prior case law.
Rudd said the U.S. Department of the Interior is charged with overseeing tribal health care programs. He said the IRS did not communicate with the Interior Department while drafting the rule.
“Basically what we have is a left-hand-right-hand problem in communication among agencies,” Rudd said.
U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl said he would need more time to deliberate on the suit because of the complicated nature of the Affordable Care Act.
“This is the statute that cast a thousand lawsuits,” he said.
Skavdahl said he would release his decision in the coming weeks.