Tribes are Large Employers & Those Employees Make the Best Customers

Mark Trahant
2/13/14

So here is something cool: Google three words – tribes largest employers – and dozens of entities pop right up. This is our generation’s success story because across the country, in communities large and small, tribal governments and enterprises are writing lots and lots of paychecks. Tribes are big business.

An Idaho economic impact report summed up this sort of progress well. An economist said: “The study confirms what tribal planners already know – the tribes are rapidly growing, significant engines in the state.”

But that progress takes on a different context in the age of the Affordable Care Act. Tribes are employers. And that means there is a long “to do list” in order to meet the requirements under the healthcare reform law. If a tribe employs more than 50 workers, then insurance has to be offered that meets the requirements of the law and costs the employee less than 9.5 percent of their annual income. (Laura Bird and Jim Roberts of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board wrote an excellent summary of the requirements.)

It’s important to remember that most Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, get their health insurance through work. (I’ve written this before and will add again, this is uniquely American and dumb. We should not tie our jobs to our health care. But that’s where we are at.)

Right now most of the employer provisions are on hold. The Obama administration gave large employers more flexibility on insurance rules and delayed the implementation for mid-size employers until 2016. That means tribes will have more time to get ready. A good thing, too. Once all of the employer provisions begin, the penalty for being wrong could cost tribes some $2,000 per employee.

However Mark J. Mazur, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, wrote that the delay “will allow us to consider ways to simplify the new reporting requirements consistent with the law. Second, it will provide time to adapt health coverage and reporting systems while employers are moving toward making health coverage affordable and accessible for their employees.”

Critics of the Affordable Care Act are not happy about these changes, saying it’s more evidence the law does not work. The administration, however, is trying to make certain there are no more major glitches (such as the website) and this is a logical delay.

Another twist that impacts Indian country is that a major retailer, Target, is ending its insurance options for part-time employers because the workers would likely get a better deal through the exchanges (including tax subsidies). I suspect this would be the same for tribes and tribal enterprises.

The whole question of employment under the Affordable Care Act has taken on a new dimension with the recent report by the Congressional Budget Office. Republican opponents of the law cited this report as proof that some 2.5 million people will lose their jobs as a result. The CBO this week refuted that. The idea the CBO tried to measure was that many people would quit working because they had more choices.

The back and forth from CBO is great. “Q: Will 2.5 Million People Lose Their Jobs in 2024 Because of the ACA? A: No, we would not describe our estimates in that way.”

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