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Texas 'Obamacare' Navigators at Center of Dispute (Update)

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

Update: The Affordable Care Act's health insurance marketplace opens tomorrow. Insurance navigators will be available in certain parts of the state to help Texans sort through coverage options. But Gov. Rick Perry wants navigators in Texas to have extra training. Gov. Perry proposes to require 40 hours of training on top of what’s mandated by the federal government.

The Texas Department of Insurance hosted a public meeting in Austin this morning to get feedback on that rule and others. The meeting took place  in the Hobby Building on Guadalupe Street.

Original post (Sept. 24): Next week, the Texas Department of Insurance expects to begin the process of writing new rules that add extra training for health care navigators. Those are the workers who are supposed to help people shop on the new insurance marketplace.

Gov. Rick Perry says the federal training requirements for navigators won’t suffice in Texas. Last month, the federal government awarded almost $11 million to organizations in Texas so they can train navigators. Starting October 1, navigators are supposed to help guide consumers enroll in a health insurance plan. 

But On September 17, Gov Perry sent a letter to the commissioner of the Texas Department of Insurance with a directive to come up with rules for more training.

"We see these rules as common-sense solutions," says Josh Havens, Perry's spokesperson. "Based on the nature of what these navigators are going to be doing, they’ll be collecting confidential information including social security numbers, birth dates, financial information, we want to ensure there are safeguards in place that incorporate a level of accountability and level of competency for these navigators."

Navigators do come into contact with consumers’ information. That’s why State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, wrote a bill last legislative session he said is aimed at ensuring consumers get accurate information about insurance plans. The law, Senate Bill 1795, went into effect on Sept. 1. Perry cited the law in his letter to the insurance department. He wrote that it “specifically allows TDI to adopt more stringent regulations than federal rules."

But Sen. Watson said it doesn’t authorize the insurance department "to put sorts of onerous and burdensome and in some cases somewhat ridiculous restrictions on navigators to make it harder for them to do the  important work we’re going to need them to do.”

Perry wants at least 40 more hours of training. That’s in addition to the 20 hours they’re already required to get. He also wants navigators to report the names of people they sign up. But a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that's forbidden by the federal program.

The Texas Department of Insurance declined an interview with KUT, but said it would begin the rule-making process by hosting a public hearing next week.

So will we see navigators start work next Tuesday when enrollment in the federal marketplace begins? Kathy Barton, chief of public affairs for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, says that in Houston, they’re planning on it.

"We are training and we have trained most of our navigators and we will continue to train them based upon the standards established by the Affordable Care Act," Barton says. Even if there are some road bumps.

"As like with all new programs, there’s likely to be glitches and problems but we’re not seeing them right now. We think it will rollout pretty quickly," she adds.

The public will have a say over training navigators in Texas when the insurance department hearing takes place next Monday, Sept. 30 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hobby Building, 333 Guadalupe St. in Austin.

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