- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Obama administration said Thursday that it has decided to boost by roughly 20 percent the amount of money it is spending on grants to businesses and organizations that will help Americans sign up for the federal health care law — including Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

The 105 “navigator” groups, which will share $67 million, up from the $54 million initially announced, will “help consumers apply for coverage, answer questions about coverage options and help them make an informed decision about which option is best for them,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

Republicans say the money amounts to a “slush fund” for doling out to the administration’s political pals and the higher cost shows the government is breaking the budget with the health care law.

Mrs. Sebelius took the additional $13 million out of another program from the health care law, the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

The money is being awarded to groups and individuals who are being trained to help Americans learn about and sign up for the state-by-state insurance markets that will begin to enroll Americans in several weeks.

House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said that dipping into one part of Obamacare to boost another shows that the law isn’t ready to go into effect.

“Implementation has been anything but smooth with delays and missed deadlines becoming a common theme. These grants come just 45 days before open enrollment is scheduled to begin, leaving a short training window for the Navigators,” committee Republicans said in a statement.

Mrs. Sebelius has blamed Congress for the shortfall, saying lawmakers have underfunded the law.

Workers within the navigator groups will assist people who shop this fall on one of the 34 insurance markets, or “exchanges,” set up by the federal government alone or through a state-federal partnership.

Grants were awarded to a mix of health care centers, universities and community groups. Branches of Planned Parenthood in Iowa, Montana and New Hampshire received a total of $655,000, which is sure to raise the ire of Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, lambasted the District of Columbia on Wednesday for awarding a $350,000 grant to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., as part of its exchange’s in-person assistance program.

Also this week, the Government Accountability Office said it would conduct a comprehensive investigation into the use of federal taxpayer funds that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers received.

“The federal funding of abortion providers like Planned Parenthood is a serious problem in our country, and one that I have been fighting since I arrived in Congress,” Ms. Black said, adding that the D.C. grant is “a sad reminder that despite assurances from the President when the law was passed, Obamacare will in fact give tax payer money to abortion providers.”

The announcement Thursday did not apply to 16 states and the District, where officials set up marketplaces on their own.

Every state’s exchange is scheduled to begin enrollment Oct. 1 for coverage that takes effect in January.

Groups that received funds are charged with promoting the Affordable Care Act through brochures, conference calls and other outreach efforts and then helping consumers determine whether they qualify for tax credits on the health care exchanges to offset the costs of their premiums.

The navigators also can connect enrollees with benefits such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, officials said.

Opponents of Obamacare say assistance programs tied to the law are ripe for fraud and abuse, because the army of in-person helpers will have access to enrollees’ personal data.

On Wednesday, 13 Republican state attorneys general aired their concerns about the assistance programs in a letter to Mrs. Sebelius. Among other complaints, they noted that each navigator’s training period had been cut from a total of 30 hours to 20.

Administration officials said they promised “up to 30” hours of training and that the initial 20 hours would be supplemented as needed.

HHS officials said navigators will be subject to “robust” privacy controls. Background checks are not required, but some of the organizations conduct them anyway and some states have laws that will require them.

Federal officials can terminate the grants for noncompliance, which includes fraud and abuse, and organizations must provide quarterly and annual reports on their progress.

The navigators are expected to offer unbiased information and not to have any conflicts of interest with insurers that offer coverage on the exchanges. Officials also looked for organizations that are “culturally competent,” meaning they have the ability to accommodate diverse communities and serve non-English speakers, if needed.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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