Ready or not, Ohio is on the verge of a massive expansion of health insurance. Consumers and small businesses begin in October to enroll in a health exchange, a marketplace that is expected to draw thousands of consumers trying to choose among competing health plans. With a few short months to go, there is real concern that the Statehouse has set policy that would restrict unnecessarily the number of exchange navigators in Ohio and their capacity to assist consumers.
About 1.5 million Ohioans currently are uninsured. Many who will be required under the Affordable Care Act to enroll in the exchange beginning Jan. 1 will be first-time participants in the insurance market and unfamiliar with the selection and enrollment process, which can be intimidating. For that reason, the Affordable Care Act makes provision for facilitators in every state, “navigators” whose role is to make sure that consumers have clear and accurate information and help them sort through the costs and benefits of competing plans on the exchange.
As the link between consumers and private insurance companies, a sufficient contingent of competent navigators will be crucial to getting the word out and prepping consumers for a smoothly functioning exchange.
Gov. John Kasich, unfortunately, opted to stay out of running the exchange in Ohio, leaving the responsibility, including funding the navigators, to the federal government. Still, that hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from approving and the governor signing on Tuesday, House Bill 3, to regulate the certification and training of navigators.
Proponents argue, fairly enough, the need for oversight of an essentially new work force to comply with state insurance laws and regulations. But a late amendment to the bill promises to keep the number of navigators to a minimum that is grossly inadequate to the size of the population that will need assistance. The new law requires anyone or group that offers consumer assistance with the exchanges to be certified as a navigator. But the state will certify only those who have federal funding.
So far, Ohio’s share of federal funding for exchange outreach is $2.2 million — which advocates estimate will be enough to hire about 70 navigators for the entire state. In effect, under the law, Ohio will not provide a dime beyond what the federal government puts up to help uninsured Ohioans understand their options for coverage on the exchange. “It makes sense for us to not put ourselves in the position to fund [these navigators],” argued state Rep. Barbara Sears, the bill’s sponsor. The governor and lawmakers forget the navigators will serve Ohioans who need coverage.