MIAMI (AP) — The Obama administration’s top health official made her third visit to Florida on Tuesday and discussed the large number of uninsured Hispanics who will benefit from coverage under the new health law.
It was part of an effort to counteract Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
“It is particularly difficult in some states where there is a lot of misinformation being circulated on a regular basis so we have a double challenge in states like Florida,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a visit to Miami-Dade College.
Her stop comes a day after Scott sent a letter to top congressional leaders expressing concern about the security of people’s personal information as they sign up for health coverage under “Obamacare.”
Sebelius dismissed the concerns as baseless, stressing that applicant information is not stored in a database, but is instead transferred instantaneously through a secure hub.
“Nobody will be collecting personal health information at all at any point along the way…they will not be storing anybody’s personal financial information. Verifying it yes, storing it no,” she said.
The federal government awarded grants so community organization could hire counselors to help enroll people in the new online exchange. The counselors, also known as navigators, are required to complete 20 hours of training which includes an extensive privacy component. In Florida and many other states, they will also undergo a background check. Navigators also won’t be able to access information once it has been submitted to the system.
The Medicare program has used similar counselors in its program for decades, but the navigators are getting caught in the political wrangling as the ACA’s Oct. 1 launch date draws closer. One company recently announced it was returning its navigator grant, saying the increasing state and federal regulatory scrutiny had become too much.
“I respectfully request you take immediate action by whatever means available to thoroughly review what privacy rules and safeguards are in place to protect Americans’ personal information,” Scott wrote in a letter Monday to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi is among attorneys general in 13 states who sent a letter to Sebelius last month questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer data in the program.
Last week, the Department of Health ordered county health departments across Florida to ban navigators from conducting outreach on their property. The locations work with large numbers of uninsured and low-income residents who could benefit from the exchange.
Getting the word out to Floridians will be a massive undertaking in a state that has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country. More Latino Americans are uninsured and eligible for coverage through the exchange than any other ethnic group in the U.S. In Florida, almost 580,000 Hispanics are eligible; and in the Miami area, two-thirds of uninsured residents are Hispanic and can take advantage of the exchange, Sebelius said.
Starting in October, residents looking to sign up for insurance can call a hotline, go online to healthcare.gov or the Spanish version, cuidadodesalud.gov, or get in-person help from a navigator. Outreach efforts will also begin soon at college campuses, community health centers, libraries, church groups and most pharmacies.
Still, Florida Republicans are vehemently pushing back against implementing parts of the law. Scott entered politics in 2009 running national cable TV commercials criticizing President Barack Obama’s health care plan. The state filed a lawsuit challenging the provisions of the health care plan just minutes after Obama signed the bill into law in 2010.
Earlier this year, the Legislature voted not to expand Medicaid to an estimated 1 million Floridians, more than half of whom are Hispanic. Lawmakers also voted to give up its authority to negotiate cheaper rates with insurers for two years.
That decision “really puts Florida consumers at great risk and unfortunately we don’t have the authority to step in,” Sebelius said.
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