Obamacare Navigator Grants go to Groups with No Ties to Health Care

“We can’t access the website for them, or fill out an application for them, or select a plan for them. We have to direct them back to the 1-800 number”

MacIver News Service | October 23, 2013

[Madison, Wisc…] Wisconsin Organizations that don’t seem to have anything to do with healthcare received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services to help people navigate the complicated Obamacare website, according to a federal database.

Partners for Community Development, a 501(c)(3)nonprofit in Green Bay that helps low income people with housing issues, Legal Action of Wisconsin, a law firm that provides legal services to low income people, and Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program, based in Ashland, are all listed on a data set named “Navigators” at data.healthcare.gov.

The Affordable Care Act created “Navigators” to help people navigate the healthcare exchanges, which turned out to be very difficult to use. Of the 19 million who have visited the site, only 476,000 have started applications. The law requires the Department of Health and Human Services to administer grants to organizations to create “Navigator” programs.

The only groups seemingly not allowed to apply for these grants are insurance companies or lobbyists. All these groups that seemingly have no connection to healthcare fit into the grant requirements:

Funding through the cooperative agreement is open to self-employed individuals and private and public entities including community and consumer-focused nonprofit groups; trade, industry and professional associations; commercial fishing industry organizations; ranching and farming organizations; chambers of commerce; unions; resource partners of the Small Business Administration; licensed insurance agents and brokers; and other public or private entities. Other entities may include but are not limited to Indian Tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indian organizations, and State or local human services.

Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program (CEP) received a grant for $285,035. As the name implies, that organization’s focus is on workforce development in 27 counties in northwest Wisconsin.

Marcia Pratt, the project manager at CEP, told MacIver News they’ve trained 9 navigators who spend their time mostly conducting large group presentations, she described as “health insurance 101.” They also have a helpline for individuals to call directly.

“We do get quite a few phone calls and a lot of them are people complaining about the website,” she said.

Navigators seem to be very limited in what they can do to help people in any case.

“We can’t access the website for them, or fill out an application for them, or select a plan for them. We have to direct them back to the 1-800 number,” Pratt said.

Legal Action of Wisconsin posted a letter on its website providing people with the link to the exchange and the toll free hotline number.

Partners for Community Development did not have any reference on their website to Obamacare navigation.

Neither Legal Action of Wisconsin nor Partners for Community Development returned messages left by the MacIver News Service. MNS also reached out to the contact for the HHS grants about how much money those two organizations received.

Altogether there were only five Wisconsin organizations that received “navigator” grants. The other two were Gerald L. Ingace Indian Health Center and National Healthy Start Association: Black Health Coalition.