After several months of delays, the Obama administration awarded $67 million on Thursday to fund an army of outreach and enrollment workers known as "navigators," who will help people sign up for coverage on the new state health insurance marketplaces beginning Oct. 1.
With less than seven weeks to go before the marketplaces start enrolling people in Obamacare for 2014, more than 100 navigator programs will be on a tight schedule to assemble, train and dispatch workers throughout the 34 states that will have federally run marketplaces. The 16 states that run their own marketplaces fund their own navigator programs.
As employees of universities, social service agencies, hospitals, advocacy groups, private businesses and other organizations, navigators will work with consumers to answer questions and provide unbiased information that allows people to choose health plans that fit their needs. By law, navigators cannot receive any financial compensation from insurers.
Groups receiving navigator funds include United Way programs, the Urban League, Mental Health America, the National Hispanic Council on Aging, and various universities and Planned Parenthood groups.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said navigators would undergo 20 to 30 hours of online training and must pass a certification test before they could begin work. They also must renew their certifications annually.
The administration planned to distribute navigator funding earlier this summer, but it fell behind schedule as work to establish the federal marketplaces bogged down because of funding shortages and technical complications.
Earlier this summer, HHS provided $150 million in grants to help nearly 1,200 community health centers spread the word about the Affordable Care Act, which requires most Americans to get health insurance next year or face a fine.
Like most aspects of the new health care law, the navigator program has attracted its share of critics.
The attorneys general of 13 states wrote a letter to Sebelius on Thursday expressing concern that the navigators wouldn’t be properly trained to safeguard the personal information of consumers they help enroll. They also were worried that navigators wouldn’t undergo proper criminal background checks.
In a news briefing Thursday, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the deputy director of policy and regulation at HHS’ Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said the department would respond to the letter. She said HHS had taken adequate steps to protect the safety of consumers.
"We are absolutely focused on privacy and security standards," Brooks-LaSure said, and "working very hard on a variety of ways to make sure that the systems are secure. We’re constantly testing and making sure that people who are certified to help people through the process are well trained."
In an ongoing battle to fund outreach and public awareness efforts surrounding the rollout of Obamacare, Sebelius borrowed $13 million of the navigator funding from money originally targeted for disease prevention efforts.
Sebelius also announced that more than 100 national organizations and businesses have volunteered for the “Champions for Coverage” program, which works to increase public awareness about the health care law.
New member organizations include the American Medical Association, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the National Baptist Convention and the National Partnership for Women and Families.
By Tony Pugh
McClatchy Washington Bureau