2 groups get grants for Ga. exchange ‘navigators’

A nonprofit that helps low-income households and a unit of the University of Georgia have been named recipients of federal grants to provide “navigators’’ to help consumers sign up for the upcoming health insurance exchange in the state.

SEEDCO (Structured Employment Economic Development Corporation) will receive nearly $2.2 million, and the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service will get nearly $1.7 million.

On Thursday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced $67 million in grant awards to 105 navigator grant applicants in exchanges, also known as marketplaces.

The Georgia total is about $1 million more than was expected for the state. HHS added $13 million to the $54 million projected to be distributed nationally.

Navigators will provide face-to-face, in-person help for consumers seeking information about the new marketplaces. The marketplaces are part of the final implementation of the 2010 health reform law, also known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.

Starting in October, the navigators will guide the uninsured and other individuals through their options, help them determine whether they qualify for subsidies, and assist them in enrolling in the exchanges.

A spokesman for SEEDCO, Brian Robinson, said it’s expecting to hire about 20 navigators in Georgia.

The organization — which also will operate navigator programs in Tennessee, Maryland and New York — will work with 14 community partner organizations in Georgia, including Georgians for a Healthy Future, Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition, Georgia Watch, and Mental Health America of Georgia.

The navigator program, Robinson said, “is a perfect extension of our benefits access work.’’

“We’re looking to start hiring as soon as possible,’’ he said.

A minority of states — including Maryland, New York and Colorado — have opted to run their own exchanges. But they are getting more federal money for navigators than the 34 states, including Georgia, which are letting the federal government run their exchanges.

That’s because the federal government did not expect so many states to choose as they did, the New York Times reported Thursday. Anticipating that most states would run their own exchanges, the Affordable Care Act established a large funding program for such states. Now states such as Georgia have to divvy up a smaller amount of federal funding, borrowed from public health prevention programs.

ACA supporters have said they’re concerned that Georgia’s funds won’t create as many navigators as needed. They say Georgia has hundreds of thousands of people who would be eligible to shop for coverage.

Some state AGs protest

On Thursday, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens announced that he has joined 12 other state attorneys general in a letter to HHS expressing concern that consumers’ private information is left unprotected under the new exchanges and related programs such as navigator assistance.

Olens and other Georgia Republican political leaders have been united in opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

According to the federal announcement Thursday, SEEDCO and its partners will support the activities of navigators in Georgia and Tennessee, “many of whom will be roving.”

The University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service (UGA CES) plans to place navigators in several offices outside metro Atlanta, according to federal officials.

UGA CES plans to use community workshops, engage a network of existing partners to reach uninsured Georgia residents, and provide direct services to consumers seeking assistance.

Cindy Zeldin, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, predicted that the state’s grant total will put fewer than 100 navigators on the ground in Georgia.

“For many people, enrollment will be a quick process they can complete on their own,’’ said HHS chief Sebelius in announcing the grants. She added, though, that “a lot of people prefer in-person help, instead of online or on the phone.’’

HHS said navigators will be required to adhere to strict security and privacy standards — including how to safeguard a consumer’s personal information. They’ll be required to complete at least 20 hours of training to be certified, will take additional training throughout the year, and will renew their certification

Training will begin later this month, said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure of HHS.

More than 1,200 community health centers across the country will help enroll uninsured Americans in health coverage plans, and a partnership with libraries will also help consumers who want information. In addition, HHS has begun training others who will be providing in-person assistance, such as agents and brokers and “certified application counselors.”

The state AGs’ letter to Sebelius says privacy protection measures are inadequate in programs that assist consumers with enrolling in exchanges.

“Personnel working for various groups and agencies to help consumers sign up for health insurance will have considerable access to consumers’ personal information, yet the HHS rules do not provide clear privacy protections,” Olens said in a statement. “This raises serious questions about the security of highly confidential information of potentially thousands of Georgians.”

Proposed consumer safeguards come up short when compared to other privacy protections at the state and federal level, Olens said.

“We are now discovering that Obamacare will not only harm consumers’ pocketbooks, but it will also put them at serious risk of identity theft and fraud,” said Olens. “HHS must implement an on-the-ground plan to secure consumer information, follow up on complaints and work with law enforcement to prosecute bad counselors. Otherwise this is a disaster waiting to happen for Georgia consumers.”

Brooks-LaSure of HHS declined comment on the letter from the attorneys general. “All navigators will go through robust privacy training [to] make sure they understand the rules,’’ she said. “We are absolutely focused on privacy and security standards.’’

Some ACA advocates have voiced concerns that a new Georgia law requiring the navigators in the state to be licensed, pay fees and undergo extra training may harm enrollment efforts.

HHS itself said Thursday that it’s studying the additional standards for navigator training added by Georgia and other states, and is checking to see if these create some hindrance to navigators’ performance of their jobs.

Editor’s note: SEEDCO’s Brian Robinson should not be confused with the Georgia gubernatorial aide of the same name, who often speaks on behalf of the state government in its opposition to the Affordable Care Act.