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February 22, 2018

U.S. cuts funding to health act 'navigators'

U.S. cuts funding to health act ‘navigators’

WASHINGTON — Department of Health and Human Services officials have informed grass-roots groups that assist with enrollment under the Patient…

WASHINGTON — Department of Health and Human Services officials have informed grass-roots groups that assist with enrollment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that their funding will be reduced by as much as two-thirds.

The groups, which fund organizations known as “navigators,” had braced for the cuts since the Trump administration announced two weeks ago that it would shrink overall program funding by 41 percent and slash the department’s Affordable Care Act advertising budget from $100 million to $10 million. At the time of the announcement, Health and Human Services Department officials said the outreach effort wasted taxpayers’ money.

But advocates of the navigator program, including congressional Democrats and some Republicans from rural states, said the deep cuts would undermine any effort to help consumers get insurance coverage once open enrollment begins Nov. 1. And in some instances, the funding reductions made official late Wednesday were much deeper than 41 percent, raising questions about some state programs’ viability and the fairness of the administration’s method for deciding how much money each group gets.

Navigator groups perform a range of services during the Affordable Care Act’s annual enrollment season. They help individuals learn which health plans offered on state and federal insurance exchanges would best suit them, walk consumers through the sign-up process and conduct general outreach to communities about how to obtain coverage under the law.

The program’s supporters argue that it is particularly critical during the upcoming six-week enrollment period, which is half as long as last year and comes after Republicans’ high-profile attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law.

But Health and Human Services Department officials have repeatedly questioned the value of paying navigators. Late last month, department spokesman Caitlin Oakley issued a statement calling it “ineffective” and saying that funding for this next enrollment period would be “in proportion to their performance.”

At the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which spread nearly $920,000 in navigator money among seven agencies across the state last year, Executive Director Catherine Edwards learned Thursday morning that amount would be cut by 62 percent.

“I’m a wee bit nauseous, truth be told,” Edwards said a short time later, adding that she is now consulting with her colleagues to determine what they can do with just under $350,000.

Take Care Utah, a network of nonprofits focused on helping people obtain health insurance, consists of roughly 90 navigators, enrollment specialists and insurance brokers across the state. Its director, Randal Serr, learned Thursday morning when he got to his office that his organization had suffered a 61 percent cut, from $740,000 to $289,584.

“We will have to make some tough decisions, there’s no way around it,” Serr said in an email.

Health and Human Services Department officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

As recently as May, federal officials had told Edwards that her association could expect to receive a similar grant as last year, so it had prepared a budget based on the 2016 figure. She now is wondering how she can proceed with the digital and social media campaign already planned, especially if many individual navigators may be laid off due to the funding cut.

“At what point does it become ineffective to do any of that?” she asked. “What would I be advertising? I guess I could be advertising about navigator assistance. But in terms of the in-person help, we may not have those people.”

Even before the emails began popping up in organizations’ inboxes, the agency’s abrupt announcement about an overall funding cut had created havoc for enrollment helpers across the country. It came at the exact time of year when their work becomes intense, ramping up for the enrollment season, and left them with no money to spend during the first two weeks of September because their previous grants had expired as of Sept. 1.

In phone calls the past two weeks with their liaisons within a subagency of Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, most navigators were told that they could not depend on the new funding being retroactive to the start of the month — so they would be best off not spending any money in the meantime, they heard. The liaisons told the navigators that they didn’t have any information because “higher-ups” were making all the decisions, leaders of several navigator groups said.

According to notices sent to organizations late Wednesday, these groups now have just two weeks to send the federal agency a revised budget and work plan, which federal officials then must approve. They will be allowed to use 10 percent of their award to cover costs they have incurred since Sept. 2, and the reimbursement will be restricted to certain expenses.

Administration officials said in late August that they would tie the grant awards to navigator groups’ past performance: While all would get at least $10,000, the size of a group’s grant would hinge on the percentage of its target enrollee total that it met last year.

A Section on 09/15/2017

Print Headline: U.S. cuts funding to health act ‘navigators’

Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette U.S. cuts funding to health act ‘navigators’

U.S. cuts funding to health act ‘navigators’


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