Obamacare Navigator Money Cut By 70%

After weeks of uncertainty, Obamacare navigators learned Tuesday that the Trump administration was cutting their funding by more than 70 percent, affecting dozens of states that have the programs to help people sign up for plans in the health insurance marketplace.

“It's disappointing,” said Anne Packham, project director for the Marketplace Navigators for Central Florida. “We won't be able to have the personnel to go to the hard-to-reach areas and reach the vulnerable populations."

It’s not clear how much grant money Florida will receive this year, but the overall cut, which leaves $10 million to be divided among 34 states, will no doubt result in fewer navigators on the ground, said Jodi Ray, program director of Florida Covering Kids & Families, a nonprofit based at the University of South Florida that’s been receiving and managing the federal navigator funds for the state of Florida.

“The part that I'm dismayed by is that navigators are the only folks providing objective assistance and connecting people to health services and in complex situations year-round,” said Ray. “And the unfortunate part about this is that lack of these resources are going to hurt consumers. And this is the kind of thing that can create health disparities. Particularly in Florida. … It’s really a moral issue.”

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But federal health officials say that Obamacare is well-known by now and navigators are not needed as much as the early days. They also say that according to data the navigator program isn’t very effective.

“Enrollment data from previous years show that Navigators failed to enroll a meaningful amount of people through the Federally-facilitated Exchange (FFE), and not nearly enough to justify the millions of federal dollars spent on the program,” federal health officials said in a news release.

They said that even though navigators nationwide received $36 million in federal grants last year, they enrolled less than 1 percent of the people who signed up for health insurance, and nearly 80 percent of navigators didn’t reach their enrollment goals. In comparison, insurance agents and brokers helped with more than 40 percent of marketplace enrollments last year.

Packham said that comparison to insurance agents isn’t fair, because there are thousands of brokers and agents across the state, compared with 130 navigators.

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“And I’m not sure where the attack on navigators is coming from,” she said. “There probably have been programs that haven’t been as effective. But we’ve enrolled thousands of people and we’ve always surpassed our goals. Here in Florida, [the program] has worked, but unfortunately, that’s not what they believe.”

Marketplace navigators help individuals understand their choices and educate them about health insurance, at no cost and with no affiliations to an insurance company.

Florida, which has led the nation in the number of marketplace sign-ups, has received some of the largest navigator grants — at a high of $6 million in 2015 — to fund as many as 150 navigators. Although the Trump administration cut the navigator funds last year by nearly half, Florida received a $5 million grant and deployed 130 navigators across the state.

Ray said that Covering Florida, the hub for information about the marketplace and connecting with navigators, received more than 1,000 calls a day last year during the last few days of the open enrollment.

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“Demand for information is still high,” said Ray.

Tuesday’s announcement, which came a few weeks later than usual, starts the application process and the grants will be likely awarded by September.

Each state will receive at least $100,000, federal health officials said. The open enrollment period begins on Nov. 1.

“It’s time for the Navigator program to evolve, which is why we are announcing a new direction for the program today. This decision reflects CMS’ commitment to put federal dollars for the Federally-facilitated Exchanges to their most cost-effective use in order to better support consumers through the enrollment process,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma, in a news release.

nmiller@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5158, @naseemmiller

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