6:02pm

Tue August 20, 2013
Shots - Health News

Fla. Balks At Insurance Navigators As Obamacare Deadline Nears

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 10:02 pm

A key part of the Affordable Care Act takes effect on Oct. 1. That's when Americans shopping for health insurance can begin enrolling in the program.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced recently that the federal government is awarding some $67 million in grants to help health care groups around the country set up a network of so-called navigators. These helpers will reach out to people without health insurance, find out if they qualify for subsidies and assist them in shopping for coverage.

As a group, navigators will play a key role in helping carry out one of the Affordable Care Act's missions — to bring coverage to millions of people who currently have no health insurance.

Before they are certified and begin work, the navigators are required to undergo 20 hours of training and pass a test. "They are going to be required to adhere to strict data security and privacy standards, including how to safeguard consumers' personal information," Sebelius said.

As part of the enrollment process, navigators will look at tax records, take Social Security numbers and have access to sensitive health information. Sebelius says her agency has done similar work for many years with Medicare and Medicaid recipients and that the rules in place safeguard privacy.

But Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, says he believes the federal rules are inadequate. In Miami for his monthly Cabinet meeting, Scott said, "It is unclear how the federal government will prevent personal information from being stolen or otherwise misused."

Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi is one of 13 state attorneys general — all Republicans — who sent a letter to Sebelius this month seeking information about the navigators. Among the questions: Will background checks be conducted, and how will HHS make sure they don't retain personal information and misuse it later?

The department is working on a response. "Our citizens need to know that that information that they're giving up could compromise their safety and security," Bondi said at the Cabinet meeting.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Scott, which mandates fingerprinting and background checks for all people hired as navigators, so a certain amount of the alarm expressed today seemed more about politics than policy.

Scott is a former hospital executive, who has long been a staunch opponent of President Obama's health care overhaul. He has dragged his feet on implementing most parts of the Affordable Care Act, including turning down federal money and declining to set up a state-run exchange where consumers can buy health plans.

At the Cabinet meeting, he asked Kevin McCarty, his insurance commissioner, whether he thought 20 hours of training for navigators was enough. McCarty said no.

Insurance agents can also sell health coverage policies under the Affordable Care Act, but HHS says navigators are one more resource — using consumer outreach and education to bring the uninsured into the market.

At last week's event with Secretary Sebelius, Jodi Ray, the director of one of the Florida programs hiring navigators, spelled it out even more directly.

You have to go where the people are, she said — clinics, community health centers, churches, schools. "We're going to be shaking the bushes where we know folks shop, where they eat, where they live, in their neighborhoods, in their neighborhood associations, where they get gas," Ray said.

Although he's opposed the Affordable Care Act, Scott surprised many earlier this year when he did a turnabout and said he supported expanding Medicaid in the state. Under the new law, that would provide coverage to about 1 million additional Floridians, with the federal government picking up the entire tab for the first three years.

The Republican-led Legislature, however, stuck to its opposition and the governor declined to push the issue. With his new comments, Scott appears to be returning to familiar ground — as one of the leading opponents of President Obama's health care overhaul.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In just over a month, a key part of the Affordable Care Act takes effect. Americans shopping for health insurance can begin enrolling in the program. To help consumers understand their options, the federal government has awarded millions of dollars to groups that hire people known as navigators. They'll reach out to those without health insurance, help them find out if they qualify for subsidies and then shop for coverage.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, Republican officials in Florida say the navigators may pose a threat to consumer privacy.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was in Tampa recently for an announcement about the Affordable Care Act and a reminder.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Open enrollment starts on October 1st for coverage in a plan year that starts as soon as January 2014.

ALLEN: Sebelius's announcement was that the federal government is awarding some $67 million in grants to help health care groups around the country set up a network of navigators. As a group, the navigators will play a key role in helping carry out one of the Affordable Care Act's missions: To bring coverage to millions of people who currently have no health insurance.

Sebelius says before they begin work, the navigators are required to undergo 20 hours of training and pass a test before being certified.

SEBELIUS: They are going to be required to adhere to strict data security and privacy standards, including how to safeguard consumers' personal information.

ALLEN: As part of the enrollment process, navigators will look at tax records, take Social Security Numbers and have access to sensitive health information. Sebelius says her agency has done similar work for many years with Medicare and Medicaid recipients, and the rules in place safeguard privacy.

But Florida Governor Rick Scott says he believes the federal rules are inadequate.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: It is unclear how the federal government will protect personal information from being stolen or otherwise misused.

ALLEN: Scott put questions about the navigators and consumer privacy on the agenda of today's cabinet meeting in Miami.

Also at the meeting, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. She's one of 13 state attorneys general, all Republicans, who sent a letter to Sebelius this month seeking information about the navigators. Among the questions, whether background checks will be conducted, how HHS will make sure they don't retain personal information and misuse it later.

HHS is working on a response. Attorney General Bondi says consumers in Florida and around the country need answers.

PAM BONDI: And our citizens need to know that that information that they're giving up could compromise their safety and security.

ALLEN: Earlier this year, Florida's legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Governor Scott, that mandates fingerprinting and background checks for all people hired as navigators. So a certain amount of the alarm expressed today seemed more about politics than policy.

Governor Scott is a former hospital executive who's long been a staunch opponent of President Obama's health care overhaul. He's dragged his feet on implementing most parts of the Affordable Care Act; turning down federal money and declining to set up a state-run exchange where consumers can buy health plans.

At today's cabinet meeting, he asked his Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty whether he thought 20 hours of training for navigators was enough.

SCOTT: If an insurance company came to you and told you that that was their training program, you would not look on that very kindly?

KEVIN MCCARTY: Well, I think that it would not be adequate for serving Floridians.

ALLEN: Although he's opposed the Affordable Care Act, Governor Scott surprised many earlier this year when he did a turnabout and said he supported expanding Medicaid in the state. Under the new law, that would provide coverage for about a million additional Floridians, with the federal government picking up the entire tab for the first three years.

The Republican-led legislature, however, stuck to its opposition and the governor declined to push the issue. With today's comments, Scott appears to be returning to familiar ground as one of the leading opponents to President Obama's health care overhaul.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.