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Some states add background checks for health care navigators

| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 7:21 p.m.

DOVER, Del. — Republican lawmakers around the country are adding criminal background checks or licensing requirements for workers hired to help people enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, taking aim at perceived security risks involving customers' personal information.

More than a dozen GOP-controlled states have passed legislation tightening requirements for the enrollment counselors, and bills in other states are pending. While the federal government does not require criminal background checks for navigators, states can set their own rules.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last month signed a bill requiring licensing and background checks for navigators who help people buy health insurance on the federal marketplace. Republican proponents said the requirements will help protect consumers from identity theft. Louisiana's legislature unanimously approved a similar measure with a Senate vote Tuesday.

Still, there's no sign that enrollment guides, even those with criminal records, have misused consumers' personal information in any state.

“I have no idea what's motivating them, but I have seen efforts over the past few years to make Obamacare fall apart, and this may be part of that,” said Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist who has written about hiring ex-offenders.

Blumstein said that requiring background checks is reasonable, but cautioned that there should be no blanket prohibition against hiring people with criminal records.

“To the extent that an individual got into a barroom brawl and was convicted of assault, that may likely not be a candidate for doing identity theft,” he said.

While states continue to eye tighter restrictions, a federal judge has halted enactment of a Missouri law that required health care guides to be licensed by the state. District Judge Ortrie Smith said it “constitutes an impermissible obstacle” to the federal law and was thus pre-empted. Missouri officials are appealing that ruling.

Even in states that require background checks, a criminal record often is not an automatic disqualifier.

Meanwhile, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch is suing to force the Obama administration to release records regarding the awarding of navigator contracts. The group also is seeking records related to federal requirements for navigators.

Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said Americans have a right to know what systems are in place to protect their health care information from being misused.

“Our concerns are the lack of transparency,” said Fitton, who believes the current process for choosing navigator entities involves “old-fashioned patronage and cronyism.”

“I think the states need to put at least some system of background checks in place for navigators,” he added.

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