$2.7M federal grant finances hiring, training of Pa. health care navigators

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Obama administration awarded nearly $3 million on Thursday to groups that will help more than 1 million uninsured Pennsylvanians sign up for health coverage under the president's signature health care law.

With six weeks before uninsured people across the state are supposed to begin shopping for health plans on a federal government website, the groups will scramble to hire and train workers — known as navigators — to provide in-person guidance on signing up for coverage.

Navigators are expected to provide much of the outreach about the law's mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance. Private nonprofit groups are handling the front-line work because the state ceded control of the website and outreach to the federal government.

“A network of volunteers on the ground in every state — health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates and local elected officials — can help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

The department announced $67 million in navigator grants for 34 states where the federal government is running all or part of the insurance websites. Five organizations in Pennsylvania received a total of $2.7 million.

Groups will have to make their funding stretch. Far more states than the Obama administration expected decided to let the federal government set up their websites. Health and Human Services originally set the navigator grants at $54 million, but raised the total after the department received a large number of requests.

Only 16 states established their own insurance-buying websites. Those states received tens of millions of dollars each in federal aid for marketing, education and outreach.

The navigator program is not without controversy. Possible privacy breaches are a concern of the attorneys general of 13 states, who on Wednesday sent a letter to Sebelius questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer information. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was not one of the 13 letter writers. Dennis Fisher, Kane's press secretary, declined to comment.

Health and Human Services officials declined to comment on the privacy concerns.

Open enrollment on the websites, intended for individuals who don't get coverage from an employer, begins Oct. 1. The federal government will offer subsidies to offset the cost of insurance for people who buy on the government website, depending on income level. Benefits will kick in Jan. 1.

Resources for Human Development Inc., a Philadelphia nonprofit organization, received $953,176, the largest grant in the state.

It will focus on signing up about half of the state's uninsured population, or nearly 600,000 people, who live in Allegheny and nine other counties, said Laura Line, the group's corporate assistant director for health care. In Allegheny County, the group will hire four or five navigators, she said.

Hiring enough people to fill the navigator jobs within six weeks won't be tough, she said. But finishing training and certification may be more difficult, she said.

“It's certainly going to be a hectic six weeks,” she said.

Another grant recipient, Mental Health America of Westmoreland County, is sharing $380,000 with Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association in Harrisburg and will hire one navigator to help people with mental disorders in Western Pennsylvania find health plans that include mental health coverage, said Laurie Barnett Levine, the organization's executive director.

Federally funded health centers across Pennsylvania received grants totaling $4.2 million, money that will be used to hire 76 navigators.

Navigators must complete a 20- to 30-hour training program developed by the federal government and pass an exam to be certified. Strict security and privacy standards will be part of the training. They will be subject to federal criminal penalties for violations of privacy or fraud laws.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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