News Column

Feds: Affordable Care Act Won't Hurt Oklahoma, Businesses

September 26, 2013

By Ziva Branstetter

The Affordable Care Act will not harm Oklahoma's business environment or penalize the state for failure to provide adequate health insurance to its employees, federal officials claimed in court filings Wednesday.

Attorneys for U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius included those claims in their answer Wednesday to Oklahoma's federal lawsuit challenging the law.

With enrollment set to open Tuesday, the lawsuit by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt does not appear poised to halt implementation of the sweeping federal health-care law.

The answer was filed by attorneys for Sebelius in U.S. District Court for Oklahoma's Eastern District in Muskogee. Attorneys filing the document include Mark F. Green, U.S. attorney for Oklahoma's Eastern District since 2010.

In the filing, Sebelius said the defendants "deny that the plaintiff is likely to be subject to the tax imposed on certain large employers that fail to provide adequate health insurance coverage to their full-time employees."

Federal attorneys have previously argued that the state has a relatively generous health benefits program.

Pruitt filed suit in January 2011 to stop the law. He amended his complaint in September 2012 following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding parts of the law.

Pruitt's suit claims that the wording of the law is different from federal rules established to implement it. It also claims that the law would subject the state of Oklahoma and other large employers to "burdensome, onerous and injurious" regulations that would harm business in the state.

In its answer filed Wednesday, the government denies "that any action of the defendants at issue in this lawsuit harms the 'competitive environment for new businesses' in the state of Oklahoma; and deny that the plaintiff is likely to be harmed in any other way by the regulation."

The Affordable Care Act seeks to provide affordable insurance for millions of currently uninsured Americans. The law will allow consumers to compare prices and details of health insurance plans on websites called exchanges.

In Oklahoma, plans will be offered on the exchange by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, Aetna, Coventry, CommunityCare and GlobalHealth.

Residents of some areas of the state will have more plans to choose from than others. The state will have an average of 53 plans among five categories -- catastrophic, bronze, silver, gold and platinum -- with varying benefits and premiums.

Individuals making up to $45,960 per year and families with incomes of $94,200 or less can qualify for a subsidy to purchase insurance under the law if their employers do not offer affordable insurance.

A key requirement of the law, that large employers provide affordable health insurance to their employees or pay a penalty, has been delayed until 2015. President Barack Obama's administration announced in July that it was delaying enforcement of the large-employer mandate until 2015 due to widespread confusion.

In a filing in his lawsuit, Pruitt claimed that the delay is proof "that the reporting requirements and other large employer mandate requirements are in fact injuring large employers such as the state."

Sebelius' response says Pruitt lacks standing to bring the suit and that he has not exhausted available administrative remedies.

"The plaintiff's claims are not ripe," the filing states. "The plaintiff lacks a cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act, because the plaintiff must proceed instead under the separate form of proceeding that Congress has specified."

The filing also says an injunction preventing the law from being enacted would harm the federal government, contrary to Pruitt's claims.

Enrollment is set to begin Oct. 1 in the state's federally created exchange, with coverage to start on Jan. 1 for those enrolling by Dec. 15.

Other state officials have joined Pruitt in his criticism of the law. Insurance Commissioner John Doak has claimed that health insurance rates will "skyrocket" under the Affordable Care Act.

Data released by the federal government show that a family of four making $50,000 in Oklahoma could buy coverage for less than $300 per month. The state's rates under the new law would be 20 percent to 30 percent below the national average, according to the federal data.

"This is nothing but smoke and mirrors from the Obama administration," Doak responded in a statement released Wednesday.

"Oklahoma's rates are lower than the national average because we have a very robust, competitive insurance market in Oklahoma, but rates are still going up."


(c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

Original headline: Feds say Affordable Care Act won't hurt Oklahoma, state businesses

Source: (c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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