Definition of ‘Alaska Native’ Needs Fixing In Health Care Law

Thousands of Alaska Natives will miss out on benefits they qualify for under the Affordable Care Act if the definition of Alaska Native under the law isn’t changed.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are exempt from the law’s individual mandate to buy health insurance or face a tax penalty.

They also qualify for additional help paying for out of pocket expenses in some cases and can purchase or drop coverage on a month to month basis.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich
U.S. Senator Mark Begich

Valerie Davidson, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, estimates the law’s definition excludes about 14,000 Alaska Natives because it says they have to be enrolled in a tribe or belong to a Native corporation.

“In some tribes, you’re not eligible for tribal enrollment unless you’re 18,” Davidson said. “So that’s a problem for children.”

“Other tribes have residency requirements, so you may not be eligible to enroll unless you live in that community.”

Davidson is working with Senator Mark Begich’s office to make the definition much broader in the law, to include all Alaska Natives. Begich has introduced a bill that makes the change and he’s looking for larger legislation to attach it to. He says he’s confident there’s enough support in Congress to pass it.

“It’s not reopening the whole debate over Affordable Health Care Act and I think a lot of people recognize that,” Begich said. “And as you know there are over 4 million American Indians, Alaska Natives throughout the country so I think there’s a lot of interest to just resolve this and kind of move on.”

Begich says the Obama Administration knows the definition is a problem and they’re highly motivated to get it fixed.

Alaska Natives have until December 2014 to apply for an exemption from the law’s individual mandate. It will be a paper application.

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Annie Feidt is the Managing Editor for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49th state just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie