By Sam Baker - 08/15/13 08:24 PM EDT
The Obama administration added millions of dollars to ObamaCare's enrollment push Thursday, a surprise move designed to help bolster participation in new insurance plans.
The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced $67 million in funding for “navigators,” which are people and community groups who will help people make sense of their options under the healthcare law.
HHS had initially said navigators would receive $54 million in grants, but officials said they pulled an extra $13 million from the healthcare law’s prevention fund to help broaden the reach of the program.
All told, more than 100 organizations in 34 states received grants on Thursday.
The list of navigators includes a host of healthcare networks and universities, which will add ObamaCare education to existing programs that offer healthcare counseling to low-income families.
Some community organizations will use the money to print brochures and organize informational forums. Other recipients will promote enrollment through food banks and religious centers.
Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and a supporter of the healthcare law, said the extra funding provided by HHS is helpful but still falls short of what some states are spending on their outreach efforts.
“It’s nice to have a little more money, because these people have an awfully big job ahead of them,” Jost said. “But it’s still not what’s needed.”
Navigators are an important piece of the massive enrollment campaign for ObamaCare. They will be trained to help consumers compare policies available through newly created insurance exchanges and will answer questions about the enrollment process.
Republicans have scrutinized the program and questioned whether identity thieves could become navigators and make off with personal information. HHS emphasized Thursday that navigators must be trained and certified and are subject to stiff penalties if they violate privacy laws.
Nineteen states have passed laws that impose additional requirements on navigators beyond the training and certification required by the healthcare law.
"It’s going to make it harder, it’s going to make it more expensive ... but I don’t know that any of them will make it impossible” to become a navigator, Jost said.
Conservatives are likely to criticize HHS for awarding grants Thursday to Planned Parenthood. Three Planned Parenthood branches received navigator grants totaling roughly $655,000.
Navigators will not actually enroll consumers in a particular plan, but their role in making sense of the healthcare law and helping people find a plan that works is still an essential part of the administration’s make-or-break enrollment push.
Thursday’s grant announcements underscored the strategic focus the administration and its allies have adopted as they seek to boost enrollment.
Eleven states received more than $2 million in navigator grants, including all 10 of the states being targeted by Enroll America, a prominent pro-enrollment group with close ties to the White House.
Texas was by far the biggest recipient of navigator grants, at nearly $11 million, followed by Florida at roughly $7.9 million. Both states are critical to the success of the enrollment push and, by extension, the healthcare law.
In addition to navigators, HHS will operate a website and call centers where consumers can ask questions about their coverage options. The department has also inked partnerships with libraries, community health centers and other community organizations to help provide information about the law.
Although funding for exchanges could have been higher, those partnerships will also help, Jost said.
"This is really only a small part of all of the boots that are going to be on the ground trying to get people signed up.”