CHICAGO -- With the new health law's enrollment period set to open in just a little more than six weeks, President Barack Obama's administration announced $67 million in awards Thursday to organizations that will help people understand their new insurance opportunities and get signed up.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the Navigator grant awards to 105 groups in states where the federal government will run online insurance marketplaces. Sebelius said consumers are "hungry for information."
"These navigators will help consumers apply for coverage, answer questions about coverage options and help them make informed decisions about which option is best for them," Sebelius said from Tampa, Fla., during on a conference call with reporters.
Ideally, navigators will use a variety of math and logic skills to walk people through the somewhat confusing process of buying insurance. For example, navigators will help people estimate their family income for 2014, important in determining eligibility for federal tax credits to help pay the cost of coverage.
Navigators may need to answer questions about family size, such as: Do you count the kids if they are claimed on an ex-spouse's income tax? And, they will need to be able to explain the differences between the bronze, silver, gold and platinum insurance policies offered on the marketplaces.
Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the Navigator program will be particularly important in such states as Florida and Ohio that aren't doing any state-directed outreach. The pressure now is on the organizations getting the awards, which "don't have a lot of time" to hire and train staff and plan their strategy for reaching the uninsured, she said.
Enrollment for the health law's new coverage options starts Oct. 1, and benefits kick in Jan. 1. Pollitz predicted there will be unevenness within states with some sophisticated groups being "shovel ready" with a strategy and others needing more time to plan.
"They don't have to sign everybody up on Oct. 1. That's the good news," Pollitz said. "Every day of the open season is going to be important." Enrollment will continue through the end of March 2014.
Navigators must complete a 20- to 30-hour training program developed by the federal government and pass an exam to be certified. Strict security and privacy standards will be part of the training. They will be subject to federal criminal penalties for violations of privacy or fraud laws.
Possible privacy breaches are a concern of the attorneys general of 13 states, who on Wednesday sent a letter to Sebelius questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer data in the Navigator program.
Public and private groups were eligible to apply for the grants, which were apportioned to states based on their numbers of uninsured residents.
The grants announced Thursday are going to universities, food banks, community groups and health organizations. Planned Parenthood groups in Iowa, Montana and New Hampshire are getting grants, prompting some Republicans to object.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black complained in a press release that three affiliates of Planned Parenthood will receive $655,000, "despite assurances from the President when the law was passed that Obamacare would not give federal funding to abortion providers."
In Mississippi, Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church Ministries is getting $317,742 to train clergy to be health ambassadors. In Mobile County, Alabama, a $20,750 grant is going to Catholic Social Services.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks is getting almost $2 million to help promote the law and sign people up for insurance.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the association's executive director, said 42 percent of their clients have to choose between buying food, medicine or health care every day.
"We're going to be able to help them connect to health insurance - some for the first time ever," she said.
The group plans to reach out to people through food pantries, Twitter and a large van to be used as an office-on-wheels where people can get enrolled. They also expect to educate volunteers to help spread information about the law to the state's 1.5 million uninsured.
A $4.2 million grant awarded to a program at the University of South Florida was the largest in that state.
"We're very excited that USF is going to be a statewide resource," said Jodi Ray, the project director of the Florida Covering Kids and Families program at USF, which will oversee the grant. The program will use databases and lists of people who are uninsured and have already sought services for their children through various university health care offerings, Ray said.