CHICAGO — With the new health law's enrollment period set to open in just a little more than six weeks, President Barack Obama's administration announced $67 million in awards Thursday to organizations that will help people understand their new insurance opportunities and get signed up.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the Navigator grant awards to 105 groups in states where the federal government will run online insurance marketplaces. Sebelius said consumers are “hungry for information.”
“These navigators will help consumers apply for coverage, answer questions about coverage options and help them make informed decisions about which option is best for them,” Sebelius said from Tampa, Fla., during on a conference call with reporters.
Ideally, navigators will use a variety of math and logic skills to walk people through the somewhat confusing process of buying insurance. For example, navigators will help people estimate their family income for 2014, important in determining eligibility for federal tax credits to help pay the cost of coverage.
Navigators may need to answer questions about family size, such as: Do you count the kids if they are claimed on an ex-spouse's income tax? And, they will need to be able to explain the differences between the bronze, silver, gold and platinum insurance policies offered on the marketplaces.
Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the Navigator program will be particularly important in states that aren't doing any state-directed outreach. The pressure now is on the organizations getting the awards, which “don't have a lot of time” to hire and train staff and plan their strategy for reaching the uninsured, she said.
Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak criticized the program, saying that Oklahoma's licensed agents and brokers are the only people authorized under state law to advise a prospective customer to buy a particular insurance policy or to describe the coverages or terms of a proposed contract of insurance.
“Navigators are not regulated by the Insurance Department and cannot provide these assurances,” Doak said in a statement. "If they perform any of the duties restricted by law to our licensed agents and brokers, we will put a stop to it.”
Enrollment for the health law's new coverage options starts Oct. 1, and benefits kick in Jan. 1. Pollitz predicted there will be unevenness within states with some sophisticated groups being “shovel ready” with a strategy and others needing more time to plan.
“They don't have to sign everybody up on Oct. 1. That's the good news,” Pollitz said. “Every day of the open season is going to be important.” Enrollment will continue through the end of March 2014.