UGA forced to shutter health insurance navigator program

A new state law has forced the University of Georgia to shutter its health insurance navigator program that helped more than 33,000 Georgians — many of them from rural areas — buy coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s online insurance marketplace.

Passed by lawmakers last spring, House Bill 943 bars any state government agency from running navigator programs, a key part of the health care law’s goal of helping millions of Americans get affordable insurance. The law allowed UGA to continue providing navigators until the $1.7 million in federal funding that the university received to run the program ran out. That money dried up Aug. 14.

About 316,000 Georgians signed up for coverage on in its first year of operation, and tens of thousands more are expected to sign up for plans starting Nov. 15 when the second year of open enrollment begins. It’s unclear whether the new law will slow down that enrollment. Consumer advocates say a nonprofit will likely step in to fill the gap, but it’s too soon to know how the many Georgians who got help from UGA navigators will be affected.

“This legislation was the exact opposite of what we needed,” said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, an advocacy group that was part of a consortium that received a grant to fund about 20 navigators. “It’s just really unfortunate because of politics that consumers are affected in this way,” said Zeldin, whose group is not impacted by the law.

Many Obamacare opponents, however, don’t believe the state should spend any money or resources to promote the health care law in any way, even if the funds are federal dollars, not state.

The goal of the new law was to essentially throw sand in the gears of Obamacare, said state Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, who sponsored HB 943.

Obamacare is “even more perverted than the old system,” said Spencer, a physician’s assistant. Spencer said he wanted to limit navigation programs such as UGA’s “because it essentially pushes (people) to come out and sign up for Medicaid.”

Statewide, roughly 200 navigators — the vast majority employed by nonprofit groups — helped guide tens of thousands of Georgians through, which was plagued with technical troubles early on.

As part of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout, the federal government awarded roughly $3.8 million in grants for navigator programs in Georgia, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. One went to UGA, the other nearly $2.2 million grant went to Seedco, a nonprofit that heads a coalition of more than a dozen Georgia nonprofits.

This year, $3.2 million will be available from the federal government for navigators in Georgia. Seedco and others have applied, and a decision on who will get the grants could come as soon as Monday.

UGA provided a dozen navigators, primarily in small towns from Dawsonville to Douglas. With the university’s vast extension service, it made sense for UGA to provide the program, said Deborah Murray, associate dean of extension and outreach for UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“We had the organization and the network already in place,” Murray said. “It did make a difference.”

With the marketplace’s first open enrollment period over, only those people who have lost insurance or have undergone a life-changing event, such as marriage or adoption, are eligible to enroll right now. Murray said she has no way of knowing how many people may not be getting the help they need until a replacement provider of navigators is found. What group that might be and whether it will have navigators in rural areas like UGA did remains to be seen.

Navigators will be crucial for the next three-month open enrollment period, advocates say. Many consumers have trouble understanding basic insurance terms, such as deductibles and copays, or lack computer skills.

The navigators are not the only insurance enrollment helpers. Hundreds of community health workers at federally funded clinics helped people understand their coverage options. Certified application counselors, volunteers and church group members also helped Georgians eager for health insurance.

“The marketplace is a lot like Medicare Part D,” said Jennifer Richardson, marketing and outreach coordinator at the Athens Neighborhood Health Center. “It’s a new concept, and it’s very confusing.”

Richardson said she knows she and her staff are providing a vital service to help people enroll.

“I see it as a safe haven for people to be able to come in and get help,” she said. “The marketplace basically is what it is. But in the end, they’re getting insurance, and they’re pleased.”

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This story was done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.