"Navigators" who help people use insurance exchange would be licensed; auditor controversy continues

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May 31, 2013 - 5:39pm

People who help Nebraskans get insurance through the new health insurance exchange that’s scheduled to open next year would have to be licensed, under a bill advancing in the Legislature. And there’s a move afoot to restore money the governor cut from the state auditor’s office

Health insurance exchanges are the online marketplaces where people without insurance can get subsidized policies starting next year under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. To help with the sign up process, places like federally funded health clinics will use people called "navigators." Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop described what they are supposed to do. "The navigator sits down with someone who has never had insurance before, mostly. Who’s scared to type things into the computer because the whole process is intimidating. And assists them while they get a plan."

In its original form, the proposal by Omaha Sen. Burke Harr would have required navigators to go through a process like insurance agents involving fingerprinting, checking criminal and regulatory histories, and obtaining a bond. Critics countered that navigators are community educators, and requiring them to pass a federal exam should be enough.Under a compromise, navigators will have to pass an exam and pay $25 to get a license from the state Department of Insurance.

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk said the compromise would leave consumers without experience buying insurance unprotected. "And so we have the most vulnerable getting perhaps no advice, which is in my opinion terrible, or bad advice, which is even worse," he said.

Scheer was the only senator to vote against the compromise amendment, and the Legislature then gave the bill second round approval on a voice vote.

Meanwhile, political fallout continued over the question of funding for State Auditor Mike Foley’s office. Last week, Gov. Dave Heineman used his line item veto to cut the auditor’s budget by more than $300,000 over the next two years. This week, a day after the Legislature declined to override the governor’s veto, Foley released another blistering report charging financial mismanagement in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Friday, Sen. Ernie Chambers blasted his colleagues for not overriding the veto. Chambers also suggested Heineman is trying to muffle criticism of an agency for which he is ultimately responsible. "You’re the governor. And every time you turn around there is a serious flaw – investigations of every sort, and HHS has never come forth clean. You can understand why the governor would want to cripple that office." Chambers said.

Heineman has said Foley can operate his office more efficiently. And Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which did not support restoring the budget cuts, said Foley’s record is mixed. "The auditor’s office is not completely I would say always the white shining knight so to speak, rushing to the aid of taxpayers in certain instances," Mello said. "As a member of the Performance Audit Committee, I can attest to the auditor’s office actually trying to get information on individuals in state government’s personally identifiable health records."

Mello was referring to a controversy several years ago when Foley was auditing the state’s insurance programs. Foley said he eventually got the billing information he sought without personal identifications. His audit concluded the state plan costs were exorbitant. The state later gave employees a two-month break on paying premiums and switched carriers.

Foley has said he’ll probably have to lay off three people because of the cuts to his budget. Mello said he could keep them on, absorb the cuts in operating expenses like travel, and ask the Legislature to restore the cuts when it reconvenes in January. Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said he might offer a resolution next week to put the Legislature on record as planning to do just that.

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