- Associated Press - Friday, September 4, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Northern Arapaho Tribe wants a federal appeals court to overturn a judge’s recent ruling that the tribe is legally a large employer under federal health care law - a designation that requires the tribe to provide insurance coverage for its hundreds of employees.

Beginning this year, the Affordable Care Act requires employers with 50 or more employees to offer them health coverage or face federal penalties.

People who register for individual coverage under the act may qualify for federal tax credits. However, that’s not an option for those who work for designated large employers. Individual Indians, meanwhile, are exempt from penalties that may apply to others under the law who don’t opt to get health insurance.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper in July rejected the tribe’s argument that its employees should be allowed to register as individuals for cheaper insurance.

“If Congress wished to exempt Indian tribes from this mandate that otherwise might be reasonably construed as applying to them, it needed to do so explicitly,” Skavdahl wrote.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe employs roughly 1,000 workers at its casino and other government operations. Tribal officials have said that the tribe previously had paid to help tribal employees cover individual insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The tribe last week filed with a federal appeals court in Denver, asking it to overturn Skavdahl’s ruling.

“The Northern Arapaho Tribe is pressing this appeal to try and help working class tribal members access health care benefits that are available with exchange policies,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Dean B. Goggles said Friday.

“We appreciate all the support we’ve had from other tribes, and parallel efforts from the Montana and South Dakota delegations, which are trying to solve the same problem through legislation,” Goggles said.

Supporters of the changing the existing law say requiring tribes to provide group insurance for tribal employees amounts to shifting the costs of implementing the Affordable Care Act from the federal government to the tribes.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, is pushing a bill to exempt tribal governments from the large employer requirement.

Daines issued a statement this summer saying imposing federal fines on tribes would have the potential to kill reservation jobs and further cripple tribes’ economies. “It is critically important that our tribes and tribal employees aren’t penalized due to a hastily written law,” he said.

Co-sponsors in the Senate include Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, is sponsoring the bill in the House, where it’s co-sponsored by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-South Dakota.

The bill sponsors announced this summer that they have the support of Crow, Blackfeet and Fort Peck Reservation’s Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in Montana. Those supporters say imposing federal penalties on tribes for failure to comply would reduce money available for essential tribal services.

Neither the Northern Arapaho nor the U.S. Department of Justice has filed briefs yet in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals outlining their arguments. An attempt to reach a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne for comment on the appeal on Friday was not immediately successful and the office has a policy of not commenting on pending matters.

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