Bill calls for licensing of health ‘navigators’

Georgia lawmakers took a key step Monday to prepare for the full roll out of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The Senate approved House Bill 198, which requires the licensing and regulation of a new group of workers called health insurance navigators. Called for under the Affordable Care Act, the navigators will help uninsured people and businesses use the new federally-run online health insurance marketplaces starting this fall.

“This is a consumer protection bill,” said Sen. Tim Golden, R-Valdosta, who supported the bill. “The exchanges, like it or not, are coming.”

Nearly 900,000 Georgians are expected to shop for coverage on the exchange website. They will be able to compare coverage options and prices, as well as potentially qualify for federal tax subsidies.

The navigators will help consumers determine whether they are eligible for commercial health insurance programs, federal tax subsidies, the state Medicaid health program for the poor, and other services. Details of how they will provide the service are yet unclear.

HB 198, which was already passed by the House of Representatives, aims to make sure navigators are knowledgeable about the exchange and insurance plans that will be offered to consumers. The bill requires navigators to go through at least 35 hours of training, be licensed and participate in continuing education classes for license renewal.

Smaller community nonprofits and other groups are expected to hire navigators, who will be paid for by federal grant dollars.

They will be overseen by the state insurance commissioner, a requirement of the law that concerns some Senators.

Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, questioned whether some wording in the law, stating the insurance commissioner must be satisfied with the experience and knowledge of a potential navigator applicant, was too subjective.

“I’m not sure how we measure or monitor the satisfaction of the commissioner,” Davis said.

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he thinks the idea of navigators was a good one, since the health care exchanges will be complex. But he voiced disappointment that state leaders opted out of building a Georgia-specific exchange, instead leaving the task to the federal government.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have someone in Washington determining what an exchange in Georgia is going to look like,” he said.

Navigators will begin helping consumers sign up on the exchange this fall with insurance coverage beginning in January.