Ga. gets $3.8M to hire helpers

‘Navigators’ will guide health plan choices. Exchange opens in 6 weeks; some say more counselors needed.

By Misty Williams

Georgia will receive millions of federal dollars for a new workforce of health insurance “navigators,” or counselors who will help uninsured people find coverage on the state’s new exchange, the federal government announced Thursday.

But the $3.8 million won’t go far, and just 46 days remain before the opening of the exchange, created by the Affordable Care Act. During those six weeks, the local nonprofits and other groups that won the grants on Thursday will have to hire the navigators and put them through 35 hours of training. Navigators must also undergo fingerprinting, a background check and state licensing exam all by Oct. 1 when the exchange opens for business.

The grants will pay for far fewer navigators than are needed, consumer advocates say, to help the 900,000 Georgians expected to shop on the exchange. Of the two groups receiving grants, one estimated that it could hire 20 navigators; the other was not yet sure. The consumer advocates also note that state leaders, who strongly oppose the Affordable Care Act, have done little to help out.

“It’s a huge gap that the state isn’t doing anything in terms of leadership and resources,” said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future.

She pointed out that states that opted to build and run their own exchanges, such as California, have had a head start with more time and funding to help educate consumers about the health care law and new insurance options it brings.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal rejected both the exchange and expansion of Medicaid called for by the law.

“The state doesn’t administer this federal program and has played no role in its development. It’s only appropriate that the federal government carry out this responsibility,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When Americans see their costs are going up, not down as promised, there should be no mixed signals about where they need to turn to seek remedies: Washington.”

Also on Thursday, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens joined 12 of his counterparts in raising concerns about whether the navigators will properly protect consumers’ private information.

“The proposed consumer safeguards are woefully substandard and come up short when compared to other privacy protections at the state and federal level,” Olens said in a statement.

The exchange websites play a critical role in the health law’s aim of providing affordable coverage to tens of millions of Americans. The sites will cater mainly to people who don’t already get coverage at work, such as the unemployed, self-employed and students.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are creating state-run exchanges. The federal government must do much of the rest of the work, including in Georgia.

Without the state’s help, and absent more money from the feds, it will be even more important for groups hiring navigators to work together, Zeldin said.

Zeldin’s Georgians for a Healthy Future is part of a coalition of groups that applied for federal dollars to hire the navigators. The group received about $2.2 million, which will fund an estimated 20 navigators for a year.

The navigators will help consumers sift through dozens of health plans sold by private insurance companies on the exchange. They will also help people figure out whether they qualify for federal subsidies to help make coverage more affordable or are eligible for government health programs.

Choosing insurance is a complicated decision, with cultural and language differences creating an even bigger challenge, said Ben Thomases, senior vice president of programs for Seed-co, a New York-based nonprofit that is heading up navigator hiring efforts in Georgia, New York, Tennessee and Maryland.

“We view health insurance as an essential need that helps people make ends meet and helps them succeed,” Thomases said.

Seedco is leading 14 community groups in Georgia that are focusing not just on navigators but also outreach events and other efforts to get out the word about the exchange.

Federal officials awarded on Thursday a second $1.7 million grant to the University of Georgia to hire navigators.

The goal is to present people with their insurance options in as understandable a way as possible and to help them make wise choices about their health care, said Linda Kirk Fox, dean of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA.

“It’s important that people see us as helping them,” she said, “not making their decision for them.”