USF, Pinellas Get 'Intimidating' Letters From Congress
Eight groups that are hiring and training "navigators" to help uninsured Floridians enroll in Obamacare have been sent letters by a U.S. House committee seeking information on their activities -- a letter that some have called "intimidating."
Two of the groups are public entities: University of South Florida and Pinellas County Board of Commissioners.
Two others are non-government groups based in Florida: Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County Inc. and Epilepsy Foundation of Florida.
Four other groups are based elsewhere but received grants to hire and train navigators in Florida: the National Hispanic Council on Aging, Cardon Healthcare Network, Mental Health America and Advanced Patient Advocacy LLC.
Karen Basha Egozi, CEO of Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, said she's never gotten a letter from Congress before. She said she was "taken aback at first, a little bit overwhelmed." The amount of work involved in answering all the questions would be akin to answering a demand for discovery in a lawsuit, she said.
"I'm going to be as responsive as possible," she said. "I'll be in touch with them and explain we're not huge, I'm not a big company that has attorneys on staff.
"All I know is my agency is in this to get people informed. We just do the public good, and we're anxious to get started."
Basha Egozi and her staff have begun 20 hours of online training provided through a federal website, after which they must take and pass a test. They are also hiring about nine new community outreach workers specifically for this project, and they too will have to go through the training and certification.
Then all navigators have to be certified through Florida's Division of Financial Services, which requires a background check.
They need to be ready by Oct. 1, when the federal online Marketplace opens and millions of uninsured and confused Floridians are seeking help.
The letter requires that the organizations respond by Sept. 13. A statement released on behalf of USF President Judy Genshaft by USF Health's Director of Public Affairs Anne DeLotto Baier said:
"USF will respond to the letter. The University is considering how best to respond as decisions remain at the appropriate administrative levels."
The letter, signed by 15 Republican members of the committee, says they want to "better understand the work you will perform as a Navigator and the consumer protections that will be in place" before the Marketplace opens.
Kaiser Health News reports some of the 51 organizations that received the letter regarded them as an effort to block Navigators from being trained in time to help the uninsured enroll in a health plan when the market opens. Kaiser quoted a food bank director in Ohio, who called the letter "quite offensive" and "absolutely shocking."
Last week when word of the letter got out, the Obama administration called it a "blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate."
The letters were sent to about half of the organizations that received federal "Navigator Grants" totaling $67 million. Florida's share: $7.8 million, more than half of which went to a consortium of consumer-help groups led by USF's Covering Kids & Families, housed at USF College of Public Health.
Republican elected officials at both the federal and state level have made statements and taken actions that could have the effect of slowing down the rollout of the Marketplace, which will offer a choice of health plans and subsidies for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and other Republican state officials recently issued a warning that consumers who use the Marketplace may be risking identity theft. Supporters of the Affordable Care Act said the digital exchange has protections against such theft and said the statements were aimed at undermining the law.
On Wednesday, Former President Bill Clinton delivered a speech calling for Republicans to stop trying to repeal or defund the law. Instead, he said, they should work with Democrats to improve it.
"It seems to me that the benefits of the reform can't be fully realized and the problem certainly can't be solved unless both the supporters and the opponents of the original legislation work together to implement it and address the issues that arise whenever you change a system this complex," Clinton said, according to the Associated Press. "There are always drafting errors, unintended consequences, unanticipated issues. We're going to do better working together and learning together than we will trying over and over again to repeal the law or rooting for the reform to fail."