Bemoaning budget cuts, navigators say feds don’t appreciate scope of the job

Open enrollment ad screengrab
Helping people understand how the marketplace coverage works is an ongoing challenge, navigators say. (Image: HealthCare.gov / YouTube)

The Trump administration says many of the organizations that help people enroll in health plans on the federal insurance marketplaces don’t provide enough bang for the buck, sometimes costing thousands of dollars to sign up each customer. So, it is cutting their funding, some by as much as 90%, the government told the groups last week.

But the navigators, as they’re called, say the government doesn’t understand the time involved in the effort or the complexity of the enrollment challenge. Nor do federal officials appreciate the variety of tasks that navigators are asked to handle, they say.

RELATED: Trump administration slashes funding for ACA outreach, assistance during open enrollment

Some customers don’t know how to use a computer. Many don’t understand insurance lingo—what’s a deductible, anyway?—or how to pick the best plan for their needs. Consumers get confused about estimating income and determining household size to qualify for premium tax credits that are available for people with incomes up to 400% of the poverty level (about $98,000 for a family of four). What if you’re self-employed and have no idea how many hours of work you’ll get next year? If Grandma is a dependent, does she count as part of the household? What about mixed immigrant families, in which one member is undocumented and ineligible for health insurance? These are the types of vexing questions navigators routinely field, they say.

In addition to helping people sign up, navigators often assist them throughout the year as their income or job status changes and offer community outreach and education services. Marketplace coverage is complicated and so are people’s lives, they argue, and finding the right plan can be tough.

“You can decide on the best policy, but people come from so many different backgrounds and experiences that it’s impossible to have a policy that can be applied uniformly,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. The center has run a technical assistance project for navigators in recent years and produced an online guide that addresses frequently asked questions.

RELATED: Insurance commissioners weigh in on ACA outreach funding cut, individual mandate

Sandy Dimick is program director for Get Covered Tennessee, part of Family and Children’s Service, the state’s primary navigator grant recipient. She said one of the common issues that navigators there deal with is helping self-employed people estimate their income for the coming year to know if they can qualify for federal subsidies to help pay for their premiums.

“We’re in Nashville, Music City, and lots of musicians are contract workers,” she said. “They think they qualify for subsidized coverage, but by the time they deduct their expenses they may be in the Medicaid gap because we didn’t expand Medicaid here.” She was referring to people whose incomes are below 100% of the poverty level, the minimum amount to qualify for marketplace premium tax credits, but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Navigators can also be instrumental in helping clients save money on out-of-pocket costs, she said, because the federal health law offers cost-sharing reduction subsidies for people earning up to 250% of the federal poverty level (about $30,000 for an individual in 2018). The subsidies may bring their deductibles down to zero, potentially saving them thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, Dimick said. But many marketplace customers don’t know about the subsidy and don’t realize it’s available only if they buy a silver plan on the marketplace. Unless these people work with a navigator, they may miss out because those who are financially strapped lean toward purchasing the slightly cheaper bronze plan that doesn’t qualify for cost-sharing reductions.

Dimick said her group will lose 15% in federal funding on its $1.6 million grant, about the amount they had anticipated.

Helping people understand how the marketplace coverage works is an ongoing challenge, said Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society, New York’s largest navigator program. New York runs its own marketplace, and Benjamin said she doesn’t expect a funding cut.

“People are still struggling with the metal levels,” Benjamin said, referring to the bronze, silver, gold and platinum plan types offered on the marketplaces that pay from 60 to 90% of covered medical expenses. “They don’t understand that if they have premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions they shouldn’t just lurch to the lowest-cost bronze plan.”

Erinn Garrison, a navigator in Ohio, sometimes travels to meet people at coffee shops or churches in the rural portions of the state.

“A lot of the people I work with have limited technological capability,” said Garrison, the health initiatives manager at the Ohio Association of Foodbanks in Columbus, which leads a statewide consortium of navigators. “They can’t work on a computer.”

The group’s navigator funding was cut by 71% for the coming year, to $485,967.

The Trump administration is taking a hard line, it says, because the navigator groups have not shown that they are providing good value. Last year, the groups received $62.5 million and enrolled 81,426 individuals. The administration said the new funding formula is based on how well each group did toward meeting its 2017 enrollment goal, but many navigator groups say there doesn’t appear to be a correlation.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the federal marketplaces, has a toll-free call center. When asked if it plans to increase staffing or undertake other enrollment activities this year, officials said, “CMS will continue to operate our year-round exchange call center to assist consumers with enrollment and as in past years we will ramp up staffing to support the higher call volume anticipated during open enrollment.”

If navigators are thin on the ground this fall, people can opt to sign up directly with insurers or brokers. The federal government plans to launch a “help on demand” tool on healthcare.gov that will connect consumers directly with agents and brokers, according to a blog post on the Health Affairs website by Timothy Jost, an emeritus professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and an expert on the health law. But advocates have expressed concerns that consumers may not get impartial advice from vendors who receive sales commissions for specific insurance products.

In addition to healthcare.gov, some groups have published detailed information aimed at navigators that may help intrepid consumers get answers to enrollment questions. The Georgetown navigator guide is available online, as is information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The published CBPP information may be helpful to some individuals, but it’s not a substitute for navigators who help people one-on-one, said Judith Solomon, the center’s vice president for health policy. “It’s not boots on the ground,” she said.

 Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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