by Grace-Marie Turner
A blockbuster report by the House Oversight Committee staff shows the threats Americans will face when an army of ObamaCare workers begins to fan the country to enroll people in the new health insurance exchanges.
The detailed report by the Republican staff of Rep. Darrell Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also exposes new layers of lawlessness in implementation of the law.
The title of the report says it all: “Risks of Fraud and Misinformation with ObamaCare Outreach Campaign: How Navigator and Assister Program Mismanagement Endangers Consumers.”
The law requires states to fund grants to hire “Navigators” who will help people enroll in the exchangers. It clearly says the money to pay them must come from the state’s exchange operating funds and not from direct federal funds. Most states that are creating their own exchanges, however, refused to pay more than a token amount for “education and enrollment” by the Navigators.
So the Obama administration decided to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to circumvent the law and create a twin program, called the In-Person Assistance Program (Assisters). The Assisters are paid with federal funds and will do exactly the same job as the Navigators. The District of Columbia, for example, will spend $35 million in federal funds on Assisters, but only $100,000 of its own funds on Navigators, the committee found.
The Assisters are “an end-around of the statutory requirement” and a creation of the rule-making process, the report says. The committee staff has conducted interviews over six months with top administration officials to learn more about the program.
Gary Cohen, the director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at HHS, had testified during a hearing earlier this year that the law provides the authority for the new program. But when confronted during a subsequent committee interview with the actual statutory language showing there is no broad requirement to provide outreach and education, Cohen said that his answer “was not as precise as it might have been.”
The committee says that “HHS’s decision to provide establishment grants to fund Assisters will result in unauthorized federal spending of hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone.”
As bad as this is, it’s the risks to consumers the committee uncovers that send chills up one’s spine:
- Scam artists. The committee is concerned about “widespread reports of scam artists and fraudsters who plan to take advantage of Americans’ confusion about ObamaCare…Scam artists can easily prey on unsuspecting enrollees by impersonating a Navigator or Assister.” The report cites news articles that describe citizens who “reportedly have been threatened with prison time if they do not sign up for coverage on the spot.”
- No background checks. HHS is not requiring Navigators and Assisters to go through fingerprinting or background checks, even though they are gathering information that could instantly lead to identity theft of the victims. The workers will be collecting Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses, email addresses, and information about employers, income, and health habits, such as tobacco use. All of this can be written down on a paper form that will then have to be transcribed into a computer, possibly by yet another person who hasn’t gone through a background check
“In totality, the information gathered by the Committee shows that the Administration never seriously considered required background checks for Navigators and Assisters or prohibiting individuals with serious criminal backgrounds from obtaining access to sensitive consumer information,” the report says. The administration made a deliberate decision not to require Federal background checks, Cohen said, because they also want “Navigators to serve certain communities which may be unwilling to do that if they have to go through a background check and fingerprinting.”
- Felons as Navigators. The committee asked Vicki Gottlich, the official in charge of the day-to-day development of the Navigator and Assister programs, whether convicted felons, including individuals convicted of identity theft, could become Navigators. “Mrs. Gottlich replied that the proposed rule would permit all of these individuals to work as Navigator and Assisters,” the report says. She said the hiring decisions and any background checks are the responsibility of the organizations hiring these workers.
- No badges. Navigators and Assisters will not have any kind of official badges, and HHS will not maintain a list of their names on its website so there is no way for consumers to verify whether they are legitimate. “There won’t be a badge,” Gottlich said. How can people know? “…we’re trying to work that out,” she said. Anyone who wants to be sure a Navigator or Assister is authentic will have to contact the organization that hires them to check. Consumers should “go to the organization, rather than us,” Cohen told the committee. Talk about Buyer Beware! The committee also asked Gottlich if she is “concerned that people will pose as Navigators and try to take consumers information.” “Yes,” she said candidly.
- Little training required. The Navigators and Assisters will have as little as five hours of training in figuring out how to help people enroll. The training manual is more than 200 single-spaced pages, with enough complexity to require a law degree to decipher. But the Assisters are not required to have a law degree, or even a high school education!
There are dozens of other concerns on which HHS is still developing guidance, from whether Navigators and Assisters are allowed to go door-to-door to solicit enrollment (as some already have done), how to secure information from the applications in the laptop computers that will be used for enrollment, and whether workers can provide gifts to encourage people to enroll. This, as training has already been conducted for many and as the beginning of the enrollment period is only days away.
As the boots start to hit the ground, the Navigators and Assisters may be the most dangerous part of ObamaCare implementation to average Americans – and there is a lot of competition for that claim!
Posted on Forbes: Health Matters September 24, 2013