Court hands victory to O-Care navigators

A federal judge ruled Thursday that states refusing to run their own health insurance marketplaces under ObamaCare cannot impose additional requirements on the law's enrollment counselors.

The decision from the Missouri-based U.S. district court applies to a state law that limited what ObamaCare "navigators" could say when providing advice about health insurance. The law also imposed additional licensing requirements on the workers.

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Judge Ortrie D. Smith argued that Missouri ceded its ability to create these rules when it allowed federal health officials to construct and operate its ObamaCare insurance marketplace.

"Missouri has opted not to be in the health insurance exchange business," Smith wrote. "Having made the choice to leave the operation of the exchange to the federal government, Missouri cannot choose to impose additional requirements or limitations on the exchange."

The healthcare law's "navigator" program provides grants to community groups to help advise uninsured patients about their coverage options under ObamaCare. Similar counselors exist within Medicare, and many organizations pitch in with both programs.

Supporters say the initiative ensures that consumers receive unbiased advice on healthcare coverage without the influence of commissions collected by traditional insurance agents.

Critics say "navigators" could steal sensitive personal information from the people they assist and should undergo vetting similar to conventional brokers.

This argument has led to the passage of many new requirements for "navigators" in states around the country, many of which do not run their own ObamaCare exchanges. The issue is also a concern for congressional Republicans.

Missouri's law barred "navigators" from discussing the "terms, benefits and features" of health plans on the exchange, putting it in tension with the workers' role as outlined under the Affordable Care Act.

ObamaCare supporters say the push was an underhanded way to prevent local activists from promoting and advising the uninsured about the healthcare law.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs in Missouri, Jay Angoff, said Thursday's decision was a victory for consumers, and suggested other state-based navigator rules could fall in due course.

"The court makes it clear that states can't interfere with the [navigators] authorized by the Affordable Care Act," he said on a call with reporters.