TALLAHASSEE -- The outreach workers known as navigators won’t be allowed to help people sign up for health insurance on the grounds of county health departments, according to a memo from the Florida Department of Health.
The order from Deputy Health Secretary C. Meade Grigg went out late Monday to the 60 local health department directors across the state.
Grigg declined to comment on the directive. But health department spokeswoman Ashley Carr said there was a need for “clarity” and “a consistent message” across the agency.
“Navigators are not acting on behalf of the Department of Health and this program has raised privacy concerns due to the consumer information that will be gathered for use in a federal database,” Carr wrote in a statement.
Health and Human Services Department spokesman Fabien Levy called the Florida directive “another blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate groups who will be working to inform Americans about their new health insurance options and help them enroll in coverage, just like Medicare counselors have been doing for years.”
He added that “despite the state’s attempts, we are confident that navigators will still be able to help Floridians enroll” in health insurance plans.
The move represents the latest hurdle to the new health insurance marketplace, which opens in Florida on Oct. 1. Earlier in the year, state lawmakers declined to expand Medicaid, and passed a proposal prohibiting the state insurance commissioner from regulating insurance premiums.
State leaders have also been pushing the privacy issue.
At a Cabinet meeting in August, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty expressed concerns that the Obama administration would amass a huge databank of Americans’ health information. They also worried the navigators might steal personal information.
“It remains to be seen whether the information that people will provide to give navigators assistance is safe,” McCarty said. “The information given by applicants will be shared by the Health and Human Services and other federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration, Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service.”
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department has said consumers would never be asked to provide their personal health information to the marketplace.
The prohibition on navigators in county health departments drew criticism Wednesday.
Retired Pasco County Health Director Marc Yacht said the move would “significantly compromise a multitude of needy Floridians from getting critical health care.” He called it “cruel and irresponsible.”
Jeremy Funk of Americans United for Change, a national group supporting the Affordable Care Act, said Grigg compromised the mission of the state health department “when he banished from the Florida health department premises the people who have been tapped by the federal government to help uninsured Floridians navigate the new health law and the benefits available to them.”
“Grigg should know better than most that thousands of people die every year because they didn’t have insurance, so why is he standing in the way of Floridians enrolling in a plan?” he added.
Both the Miami-Dade and Broward health departments declined to comment.
The navigator program in Florida is being funded by $7.8 million in federal grants, of which $4.2 million went to the Covering Kids & Families Program at the University of South Florida. The university will be disbursing the money to 10 organizations around the state that will hire, train and supervise the outreach workers.
Judy Clauser, of the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, a Doral-based group that received a $637,686 federal navigator grant, said she was surprised to learn outreach workers would be kept out of county health departments.
“I don’t think it will keep us from doing our work,” she said. “We’re partnering with community organizations like Catalyst Miami and Sant La in Little Haiti to reach the uninsured where they live.”
Even if state officials were making it easy, the navigators face a huge challenge in Florida, where 3.8 million people are uninsured. Navigators are still being hired and trained. They must pass an exam, and then go through state-required criminal background checks.
The outreach workers have less than a month until the federally operated online marketplace for Florida is scheduled to open. The marketplace was created to provide comparison shopping and subsidized coverage for uninsured people who don’t receive it in the workplace or from another source. Some states elected to create and run their own marketplace.
The plans and prices that will be available in Florida have not yet been made public. Coverage could go into effect as soon as Jan. 1.
Carol Gentry is founder and editor of Health News Florida. Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.