- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dozens of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the basement of a downtown Washington library this week, hoping to gain an edge in their bids to help uninsured city residents navigate President Obama’s health care law this fall and beyond.

D.C. officials told the crowd they are looking for organizations based in the nation’s capital that are ready to deliver in-person help to anyone trying to sift through the Affordable Care Act’s potential benefits. If they’re still interested, they need to apply by the strict deadline of June 24.

It’s a process being played out across the country, as states take applications from nonprofits and other entities that think they have the skills to help Americans wade through Mr. Obama’s law, an unprecedented overhaul of the nation’s health care system that expands the Medicaid program and will allow people without employer-based coverage to buy health plans through government subsidies.

Authors of the law, perhaps realizing the uncharted nature of the reforms, called for a system of “navigators” who will assist the uninsured in determining for what coverage and benefits they qualify.

Exchange enrollment begins in October, leaving states pressing to award grants and train navigators and another segment of helpers known as in-person assistance personnel.

A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation this year found a majority of Americans say they have too little information to understand the health law — including two-thirds of the uninsured.

“A lot of these people obviously don’t have insurance, and enrolling in insurance is always a complicated process, anyway,” said Purva Rawal, a senior manager at Avalere Health, a Washington-based advisory company.

Navigators and in-person assistance personnel will help Americans figure out their eligibility for benefits, but will not determine whether enrollees qualify for tax credits or select a qualified health plan for them. The paid workers must not have financial ties to insurers who will offer plans on the exchanges. The helpers also may be called upon to help those with limited English proficiency sift through their options.

Republican lawmakers who oppose the health care law have cast a critical eye on the navigator programs. A spokesman for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said Thursday the senator has “significant concerns with the navigator program, which lacks the appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of consumers and has the potential to turn into a breeding ground for more waste, fraud and abuse within the federal government.”

The District plans to award grants in July and train the assistants in August and September. Officials are looking for civic organizations, faith-based groups and community health providers to apply.

“They know the people and they know the communities of the District better than anyone else,” said Richard Sorian, a spokesman for the D.C. exchange.

In the Baltimore area, HealthCare Access Maryland has said it will use its $7.9 million grant to employ about 100 navigators and assistants to reach 220,000 uninsured residents in their urban region.

“It really was a natural fit for us,” President and CEO Kathleen Westcoat said, noting the nonprofit has directed qualified enrollees to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 15 years.