WASHINGTON -- The federal government Thursday released $67 million in federal grants -- 25 percent more than expected -- for state-based groups to spread the word about President Barack Obama's signature domestic health policy achievement and help people enroll in policies through health insurance exchanges.
Several Pennsylvania organizations, including one in Westmoreland County, will get a share of $2.7 million in federal grants to walk consumers through the Affordable Care Act's new health insurance exchanges, which begin enrollment Oct. 1, just six weeks away.
That includes $380,000 earmarked for a consortium of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers Association, the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, and Mental Health America of Westmoreland County.
That grant will be used to help southwestern Pennsylvanians who need behavioral health coverage in their insurance plans, particularly those with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems.
Mental Health America also received a separate $503,000 "navigator" grant to provide similar assistance in the Philadelphia region.
The grant program is the latest effort to publicize the Affordable Care Act's provisions for the uninsured. Polls show that high percentages of Americans, particularly the uninsured, are unaware of the new exchanges, or don't realize they could be eligible for subsidized individual health plans via the exchanges.
Grant recipients now must hire so-called "navigators" to offer guidance on the law and provide them 20 hours of training before Oct. 1. Coverage begins Jan. 1.
"We're operating on a really tight timeline. We have to hire very quickly," said Laurie Barnett Levine, executive director of Mental Health America of Westmoreland County. Her organization's focus will be on helping people in southwestern Pennsylvania who have mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, but she said no one will be turned away.
"We want to be an asset to the community, to educate people about what is available and help them understand what their options are," Ms. Barnett Levine said. "The navigators will not be endorsing any particular type of coverage, but will -- in a very objective way -- explain what coverage options are available."
Ms. Barnett Levine said her organization is well-suited to manage a navigator outreach program, because it has a 50-year history in Westmoreland County. "We have a long, rich experience of providing education and advocacy services to the community, and we see this as a really good match for our mission and vision," she said.
Other recipients in Pennsylvania include these:
• Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development received $953,000.
• Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, whose members include small health clinics across the state, as well as many in the Pittsburgh area, received $694,380.
• Cardon Health Network, $178,500.
Besides providing guidance on choosing appropriate coverage through insurance exchanges, navigators will offer information about other health programs, including Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, Department of Health and Human Services officials said Thursday. They will promote enrollment in the exchanges, meet in-person with health care consumers, answer questions, distribute fact sheets and help determine whether enrollees qualify for tax credits to offset premiums.
"People are hungry for information on finding the security and peace of mind that comes with affordable health coverage," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call. "These navigators will help consumers apply for coverage, answer questions about coverage options and help them make informed decisions about which option is best for them."
Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a fierce Affordable Care Act critic, is concerned that navigators are being trained before the health insurance exchanges are finalized. "They're supposed to provide factual information regarding the plans, but the plans aren't ready. We don't know what they are," he said in an interview Thursday. "A lot of things are not ready, so the question is: Train the navigators on what?"
Other Affordable Care Act critics have expressed concern about navigators' access to consumers' personal data. "Your agency has no realistic plan to prevent identity theft or provide recourse to consumers when it inevitably occurs," a coalition of 13 state attorneys general said Wednesday in a letter to Ms. Sebelius. "It is not enough to adopt vague policies against fraud."
Mr. Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, shares that concern. "I'm going to be watching how they gather the information, how they store it and how they submit it," he said. "They're gathering personally identifiable information, so people should be wary." He said he wants to ensure that the information isn't used for any purpose other than enrollment in exchanges.
The attorneys general and other critics also complained that training falls short of the 30 hours the administration initially pledged. Health and Human Services officials said they had promised only "up to 30" hours' training.
They declined to say how many organizations applied for grants except that the response was "robust." In all, 105 grants were awarded to organizations including universities, health centers, food banks and community groups. Thirty-four states -- those opting to participate in federal exchanges rather than create their own -- got grants, apportioned based on numbers of uninsured residents. Pennsylvania has more than 1.2 million uninsured under age 65.
In Iowa, New Hampshire and Montana, grants went to Planned Parenthood affiliates. That is likely to draw the ire of Republicans who have sought to block the organization's funding because it provides abortions.
The administration initially budgeted $54 million for the navigator program, but increased funding by transferring money from the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health fund, said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, deputy director of policy and regulation at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. The fund is meant to provide sustained investment in disease prevention and help restrain growth in health care costs. But Republicans already see that money pot as a slush fund Ms. Sebelius can use for liberal initiatives unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.