Obama administration concerned about Republican Obamacare inquiry

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 09, 2013 6:25 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Monday expressed concerns about a congressional Republican inquiry aimed at nonprofit groups and other organizations that are getting ready to enroll people in subsidized insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform.

Less than two weeks ago, a Republican-controlled oversight committee in the House of Representatives sent questions to 51 groups in 11 states that have received $67 million in federal grants to hire and train "navigators" who will help uninsured people apply for health coverage in new online marketplaces beginning October 1.

In a move that Democrats have decried as intimidation, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee want navigator groups to provide detailed documentation of training and education, internal monitoring policies, and systems for handling personal information, contacts with insurers and healthcare providers.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded in writing on behalf of the navigators as a whole.

"We are concerned about the timing of your inquiry given its potential to interfere with the navigators' ability to carry out their crucial efforts in assisting Americans who lack health insurance," Jim Esquea, assistant HHS secretary for legislation, said in a letter to the panel's Republican chairman, Fred Upton.

The committee's Republican spokeswoman, Noelle Clemente, said the panel has had "positive and productive conversations" with navigators and expects to continue to do so.

The exchange between HHS and the committee comes barely three weeks before the October 1 deadline for the start of enrollment, a launch date that may be subject to technical glitches as state and federal officials race to complete testing of the high-tech systems needed to operate the marketplaces.

Experts say technical issues could prompt officials to rely more heavily on paper insurance applications in the opening weeks of the enrollment process, which runs through March 31.

A subcommittee of Upton's House panel will hold a hearing on Tuesday to examine preparations for enrollment and take testimony from key government contractors including Serco Inc, a U.S. subsidiary of Serco Group Plc that won a $1.25 billion contract to process paper applications.

In written testimony posted to the committee website on Monday, Serco says it is prepared to manage 6.2 million paper applications from October 1 to March 31. The company said that represents about 30 percent of an expected 22 million applications for private insurance, government health coverage for the poor and exemptions from the law.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)