HHS Doles Out Latest Obamacare Grants; Some States Object

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Health and Human Services Department on Thursday announced the distribution of $67 million to more than 100 organizations that have volunteered to help implement the 2010 Affordable Care Act by supplying “navigators” to guide consumers seeking to enroll in state health insurance exchanges.

The money came a day after 13 state attorneys general sent HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius a letter calling the navigator program “a privacy disaster waiting to happen” and blasting the Obama administration’s “abject failure at implementing the statute.”

Sebelius maintains that the program will help people understand what is available to them under Obamacare. “Navigators will be among the many resources available to help consumers understand their coverage options in the marketplace,” she said. “A network of volunteers on the ground in every state -- health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates, and local elected officials -- can help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled.”

Supporters of a related outreach program dubbed “Champions for Coverage” 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. They will work with more than 1,200 community health centers, local libraries and HHS outreach tools such as its HealthCare.gov website and 24-hour consumer call center to educate the public about the law’s new opportunities and requirements for the uninsured.

HHS stressed that the navigators will be trained to “provide unbiased information in a culturally competent manner to consumers about health insurance, the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, qualified health plans, and public programs, including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.” They will complete 20 to 30 hours of training to “adhere to strict security and privacy standards -- including how to safeguard a consumer’s personal information,” HHS said.

On Wednesday, a group of attorneys general wrote to Sebelius complaining that the navigator program and the exchanges set to open on Oct. 1 carry a risk of poor training and weak consumer protections, saying that more work is needed in areas such as screening of personnel.

“As the chief legal officers of our states, we are concerned that [HHS] has failed to adequately protect the privacy of those who will use the assistance programs connected with the new health insurance exchanges,” they wrote. “We take very seriously the privacy of our states’ consumers and believe that your agency’s current guidance regarding these groups suffers from numerous deficiencies.”

The attorneys general come from West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified NAACP and other groups as recipients of grant money. In fact, they have been dubbed "Champions for Change" for their outreach efforts and have not necessarily received grants for their efforts. 

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