Eric Swanson Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. —
Oklahoma’s navigators can help consumers log onto the government health care website, create accounts and sign up for health insurance plans.
However, the navigators cannot steer consumers toward a specific policy or collect their personal information, said Gayla Machell, coordinator of the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma’s navigator project.
“This is a very safe process,” she said in an Oct. 22 phone interview from her office in Oklahoma City.
Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm that helps eligible low-income Oklahomans and senior citizens with civil legal problems. The organization has 15 health care navigators in communities across the state, including Ada.
The federal health care law created a special category of workers known as navigators, who are trained to help consumers explore their insurance options and enroll in a plan, Kaiser Health News reported in September. The navigators will play a key role in Obamacare’s success because they are supposed to help consumers determine whether they qualify for federal subsidies or, perhaps, free or low-cost coverage through Medicaid.
At least 17 Republican-controlled states, including Oklahoma, have taken steps to limit what navigators can do, according to Kaiser Health News. The news organization noted that Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak warned navigators earlier this year that they cannot play the same role as state-licensed insurance agents.
“Consumers can feel confident working with licensed agents and brokers and sharing their personal information,” Doak said in August. “These individuals are trained, tested, background checked and insured. Navigators are not regulated by the Insurance Department and cannot provide these assurances. If they perform any of they duties restricted by law to our licensed agents and brokers, we will put a stop to it.”
Machell said the state has not actually restricted the work of navigators, who are following federal rules governing what they can say and do.
“We’re not writing policies,” she said. “We’re not even recommending policies. We’re just helping consumers work through the system.”
Obamacare set up a series of online insurance markets, which are supposed to be the gateway to cover for people who do not have health insurance through their jobs, the Associated Press reported Monday. The law offers middle-class people a choice of private insurance plans and provides subsidies for eligible consumers.
Low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states that decide to expand that safety-net program.
Machell said some Legal Aid offices, including the one in Ada, did not field many requests for assistance in the first couple of weeks following the launch. She said other offices were flooded with questions from people, many of whom wanted to know if Legal Aid could assist them.
“There were a lot of people who called and wanted to know if we could help, and they said they’d call back and make an appointment,” she said.
Over the past two weeks, Legal Aid’s navigators have reported only 30 cases so far in which people needed help enrolling in a health care plan, Machell said. She predicted that more people would seek assistance when they become familiar with Obamacare.
The federal government launched its health care website, healthcare.gov, on Oct. 1. The rollout was plagued by dozens of technical glitches, prompting a round of finger-pointing in Washington, D.C.
Machell said the federal government has assured navigators that the problems will be fixed as soon as possible.
“We’re just holding our breath and hoping within a couple of weeks, the system is going strong,” she said.
Under Obamacare, consumers must enroll in a health insurance plan by Dec. 15 if they want coverage by Jan. 1. In light of the botched rollout, some lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to extend the deadline until March 31.
Despite the delays, many Oklahomans who have turned to Legal Aid for assistance are excited about signing up for affordable health insurance, Machell said.
“The ones who can get through are thrilled,” she said. “The other ones have guarded optimism.”