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Healthy State tells the stories you need to know to stay well, with a special focus on Florida.We'll bring you the latest fitness trends, new research on preventing and treating disease, and information about how health policy impacts your pocketbook.We report on health using all the tools at our disposal -- video, audio, photos and text -- to bring these stories to life.Healthy State is a project of WUSF Public Media in Tampa and is heard on public radio stations throughout Florida. It also is available online at wusfnews.org.

Congress Gets Navigator Papers, Schedules Hearing

The Obama administration has turned over to a Congressional committee the grant applications for groups that are training “Navigators,” attempting to deflect political heat away from the groups while they’re busy training enrollment advisors.

An investigative subcommittee that is going over the documents has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to question an Obama administration official who leads the agency in charge of the Navigator program --  Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.

Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee
Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee

The Navigator groups have only two more weeks until the scheduled opening of the state and federal enrollment exchanges, where uninsured people can shop for a plan. The Affordable Care Act requires that most Americans who don’t already have coverage obtain a policy for next year or pay a penalty.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent the Navigator grant documents to the House Committee on Energy & Commerce on Sept. 9 along with a five-page letter. It answers many of the questions the committee had sent Aug. 29 to 51 grant-winning groups, and says the applications should supply the rest.

The committee had not responded as of Monday in writing. However, its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to question Cohen about the Navigators and other problems that House Republicans have raised about the enrollment process.

In the letter to the House Committee, HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Jim Esquea said that the applications he was forwarding were from grantees that had given permission; it was not clear from the letter whether any had withheld permission.

Esquea’s letter said HHS was answering the committee’s questions on behalf of the groups because they needed “to focus on training staff to begin to assist uninsured Americans” as soon as the online Marketplace opens Oct. 1.

“We are concerned about the timing of your inquiry given its potential to interfere with the Navigators’ ability to carry out their crucial efforts in assisting Americans who lack health insurance,” says the letter to Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.

The committee’s Aug. 29 letter to grantees, which some described as "intimidating,” gave a Sept. 13 deadline for the groups to produce voluminous amounts of information. At least one of the letter recipients backed out of the program.

Cardon Healthcare Network, a Texas  company that was to do enrollment in Florida and three other states, returned its $800,000 grant to HHS, the Washington Post reported Monday. No explanation was given. Cardon was one of eight groups serving uninsured Floridians that received the committee letter.

The groups are stretched thin in Florida, which has 3.8 million uninsured people and state officials who have balked at any cooperation in the rollout of the law they call Obamacare.  Counting the uninsured and those who shop in the individual and small group markets,  up to 25 percent of adults may rely on the federal exchange to find health plans for 2014, the year in which the requirement to have coverage goes into effect.

Medicare patients and others who are covered through a government program are not affected by the federal Marketplace. Neither are workers who already have coverage through their employers, assuming their plan meets the standards of the Affordable Care Act.

A spokeswoman for the House committee replied to an inquiry from Health News Florida, saying in an email: “We have had several positive and productive conversations with these groups and look forward to continuing to do so in the coming days. Understanding how taxpayer dollars will be used to implement the health care law is of the utmost importance to both our members as well as the American people."

 --Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Editor Carol Gentry at 813-974-8629 (desk) or e-mail at cgentry@wusf.org. For more health news, visit  

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Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.After serving two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, Gentry worked for a number of newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), the Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel. She was a Kaiser Foundation Media Fellow in 1994-95 and earned an Master's in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1996. She directed a journalism fellowship program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for four years.Gentry created Health News Florida, an independent non-profit health journalism publication, in 2006, and served as editor until September, 2014, when she became a special correspondent. She and Health News Florida joined WUSF in 2012.
Carol Gentry
Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.
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