- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled $67 million in grants to more than 100 organizations tasked with helping Americans understand the new health care law and its potential benefits.

These 105 “navigator” groups “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.

Grants were awarded to public and private entities and to persons who are self-employed.

The total amount of the grants was $13 million more than initially projected, after the administration shifted money from a prevention fund within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), officials said.

Workers within the navigator groups will assist people who shop for insurance 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 given to a mix of health centers, universities and community groups. Notably, branches of Planned Parenthood in Iowa, Montana and New Hampshire received grant funding, a fact that is sure to raise the ire of Republican lawmakers who equate the group with abortion services.

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The announcement did not apply to the 16 states, and the District of Columbia, where officials decided to set up the exchange on their own.

The exchanges are scheduled to start enrollment on Oct. 1 for coverage that takes effect in January.

Grantees are charged with promoting the Affordable Care Act through brochures, conference calls and other outreach effects and then helping consumers determine if they qualify for tax credits on the health exchanges to offset the cost of their premiums.

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

Opponents of “Obamcare” 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 navigator program in a letter to Mrs. Sebelius. Among other things, they complained that navigators’ minimum training hours had been cut from 30 hours to 20.

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

HHS officials also said navigators will be subject to “robust” privacy controls, but did not lay out specific measures like fingerprinting or criminal background checks.

The navigators are expected to offer unbiased information and not to have any conflicts of interest with insurers who 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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