In preparation for the Oct. 1 launch date of the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces, Washington D.C.’s state-run exchange DC Health Link announced Planned Parenthood is one of 35 groups tapped to help residents looking to enroll in health insurance coverage. Officially deemed “assisters,” the organization received $375,000 in funding — one of the highest allotments awarded by the exchange.
“DC Health Link Assisters are a critical part of our enrollment efforts. The District’s low uninsured rate is both great news and a challenge. There are no easy [way] to reach uninsured people, so we have to be smart, strategic, and creative. These organizations are trusted voices and sources of information in their communities and they will be our boots on the ground. Together we will get the District to near universal coverage,” Mila Kofman, executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, said in a statement.
As assisters, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan D.C. employees will undergo 30 hours of “rigorous training,” providing them with a crash course on the healthcare law so they can answer any questions D.C. residents may have. Following the training, assisters will help people enroll in DC Health Link, aiding them in evaluating their options for plans and identifying financial assistance available.
DC Health Link awarded $6.5 million in grants — funded through federal exchange establishment grants — to help the more than 150 experts, who will be trained within the next year.
Assisters bear a striking resemblance the Obamacare’s navigators, but there are some subtle differences.
Federal law prohibits the use of establishment grants to fund navigators, but lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee speculate the disbursement of establishment grants to assisters was done to circumvent the prohibition.
“[As Health and Human Services officials] agree that the functions of the Navigators and Assisters programs are “essentially the same,” it seems that…your Department intentionally circumvented an explicit federal funding ban in the interest of convenience and political expediency,” committee members wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The main difference between navigators and assisters though, the Heritage Foundation reported in a brief last month, is their level of funding. States using assisters — those operating state-run exchanges — receive much more money than those using navigators.
“The new health law offers essential benefits that will improve the health and security of the residents of our city,” said DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority Executive Board Chair Diane C. Lewis in a statement. “It is critically important that we have trained experts available to help ensure those benefits reach the people who need them.”
Planned Parenthood has actively supported the Affordable Care Act and signed on to promote the law, with some affiliates applying for navigator grants. However, if the organization is awarded funding through navigator grants — and the assister program — they could have access to citizens’ sensitive information through the Federal Data Hub.
And lawmakers on Capitol Hill fear this presents a lack of consumer protection, one that poses a security risk to Americans.
“The guidelines you have proposed for navigators, assisters, application counselors and other consumer outreach personnel provide significantly less protection to patients and consumers than the states have provided through licensed insurance producers for decades,” Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee said in a letter to Sebelius.
“Exchange navigators, assisters, application counselors, and other consumer outreach professionals will have similar access to sensitive consumer financial information, yet the proposed rule has no similar consumer protections. In fact, the standards proposed by your Department could result in a convicted felon receiving federal dollars and gaining access to confidential taxpayer information,” it continues.
But now that Planned Parenthood has officially been named as an assister, will safeguards be put in place? One can only hope.