State faces ‘navigator’ gap as exchange debuts

The state insurance commissioner’s office reported that only four “navigators’’ had received licenses in Georgia by midafternoon Monday, just hours before the health reform law’s exchange was to open for enrollment.

A navigator is an individual whose job is to provide face-to-face, in-person help for consumers seeking information about the new health insurance exchanges, also called marketplaces.


These online insurance shopping malls are part of the final implementation of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Georgia is one of more than 30 states that are letting the federal government run their exchanges.

A spokesman for the commissioner’s office, Glenn Allen, said Monday that 23 other navigators had passed the state exam but had not yet been licensed. These individuals still had to undergo fingerprinting and a background check as part of the application process.

As of Monday, 17 other potential navigators were scheduled to take the state licensing exam, Allen said.

Georgia and at least 15 other states have passed laws to regulate navigators’ work. Many states have imposed their own certification and licensing requirements. Critics of that approach say it could limit the availability of navigators.

One navigator-in-training in Georgia, Bill Rencher, said the state’s rules on navigators had slowed down the certification process.

State Rep. Richard Smith (R-Columbus), chairman of the House Insurance Committee in Georgia and sponsored the navigator legislation, has said the laws are a matter of states’ rights.

“Insurance is one of those few items that the states regulate,” he told the Center for Public Integrity. “We want to make sure they [the navigators] meet our standards, not just the federal government’s standards.”

Georgia, meanwhile, is in better shape than Ohio. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio will not have any navigators trained and in place to guide people through their options until mid-October.

Federally approved navigator organizations say such problems are not their fault. They have pointed out that they had not received news of the federal grants until August, and that they have faced congressional queries for extensive documentation since then.

Allen, of the insurance commissioner’s office, said the navigator test has been available in Georgia since Sept. 1.

But Rencher, the navigator-in-training, who is with the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said the extra Georgia requirements “are certainly slowing things down.’’

Rencher said Monday that he had already taken the state’s training course and was preparing to take the licensing exam this Wednesday. He said he had also been working on his federal training and hoped to have his application submitted by Friday.

For the consumer, there’s no rush to sign up for coverage Tuesday, Rencher pointed out. The enrollment period lasts until mid-December for someone looking to be covered Jan. 1.

“There’s no harm in waiting a few weeks,’’ he said.

Rencher added that he will be seeing the fully operational website for the first time Tuesday, just like millions of other consumers.

He estimated that Georgia would have a total of fewer than 100 navigators at full strength, counting those who will be stationed at federally qualified health centers across the state.

“It’s probably not enough,’’ Rencher said. There will also be volunteers, known as certified application counselors, helping Georgians with the process.

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.