BY SALLY C. PIPES
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently gifted Obamacare’s “navigator” program an additional $13 million in funding. Navigators are supposed to help Americans purchase health coverage through the new, state-level insurance exchanges.
This $13 million is on top of $54 million already allocated to the program. But both eight-figure expenditures represent colossal wastes of taxpayer money. The publicly funded navigator program is entirely unnecessary — and ripe for fraud and abuse.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about seven million people will shop for coverage in Obamacare’s insurance exchanges in 2014.
But they may not know it yet. According to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, fully 55 percent of uninsured Americans have never heard of the exchanges.
The law envisions that navigators will help fill that information gap — and guide consumers through the process of purchasing health insurance. Qualified individuals, non-profits, and community groups have claimed millions in HHS grants to spread the word — and eventually help people pick the plan that best suits their needs.
California is planning to use a whopping $673 million in federal money to deploy 21,000 navigators to sign people up for its exchange, Covered California. The navigators get a bounty of $58 for every person they sign up — and $25 for every annual renewal.
Health insurance is complicated, and many Americans shopping in the exchanges would surely benefit from some expert advice. But there’s a group that already does exactly what Obamacare has in mind for navigators. And that’s the private insurance agent and broker community.
It makes little sense to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to furnish a service that the private sector already provides.
And those millions in new expenses could put scores of agents and brokers out of work, as navigators amount to government-funded competition for insurance agents. Federal law bars agents and brokers from serving as navigators. Not exactly the sort of job-creating strategy America’s anemic economy needs.
Then there’s the risk of fraud the navigator program portends.
Navigators will be tasked with entering patients’ private data, such as their Social Security number, into insurance applications. The government claims that personal data handed over to navigators will be properly protected. But regulators haven’t spelled out data privacy rules. Navigators are likely to operate with little to no government oversight.
Technically, navigators who use consumers’ personal information for nefarious purposes could face fines, but there’s no clear statute holding them personally liable.
HHS insists that navigators will be well-trained and certified. But the official navigator training course is a mere 20 hours. That’s 10 hours fewer than Obamacare’s framers initially said would be necessary — and substantially less time than the standard certification process for an insurance broker.
Applicants for navigator positions are not required to undergo even basic background and fingerprint checks. And the agency’s rules are silent on whether prior criminal acts disqualify someone from becoming a navigator. Even census workers face more stringent privacy requirements than do navigators.
It’s no wonder, then, that attorneys general in 13 states concluded in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last month that her “agency’s current guidance regarding [navigators] suffers numerous deficiencies.”
Obamacare’s navigator program is costly and unnecessary. It could destroy the jobs of private insurance agents and brokers — and put millions of Americans at risk of fraud and identity theft. Congress should scrap it.
Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Taube Fellow in Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The Cure for Obamacare (Encounter 2013).