By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida was strongly criticized by the federal government on Thursday for barring outreach workers, known as "navigators," from county health departments when they start enrolling people next month for insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.
"This is 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," said U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesman Fabien Levy.
He was referring to a directive from the Florida Department of Health, issued to local health department directors across the state earlier this week. "Navigators will not conduct activities on the grounds of the health departments," it said.
The directive comes against the backdrop of an aggressive effort by Florida Governor Rick Scott and other Republican leaders in the state to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which is popularly known as Obamacare.
Republicans say the healthcare law will hurt job creation, while supporters view it as a landmark initiative that will extend health insurance coverage to millions of Americans.
The enrollment stakes are huge in Florida, where the U.S. Census Bureau says there are about 3.8 million people without health insurance. That amounts to roughly a quarter of Florida's population, giving it the third-highest rate in the country.
In a statement clarifying the navigators directive on Wednesday, the state health department said the counselors trained to help people sign up for health insurance have been barred, at least in part, in the interest of consumer protection.
"This (Navigator) program has raised privacy concerns due to the consumer information that will be gathered for use in a federal database," the statement said.
Similar concerns have been raised by Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, amid allegations that navigators might steal personal information, but they have been rejected out of hand by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, said hampering the work of navigators was a "plain absurdity" in a harshly worded letter she fired off to Scott on Thursday.
"The continued obstruction by you and many state leaders of the Affordable Care Act is contrary to the best interests of the citizens and businesses of Florida," Castor said.
"To deny access to Navigators to health departments is another obstructionist measure that elevates ideology over the interests of Floridians who simply need to see a doctor or nurse and take personal responsibility through enrolling in affordable insurance," she said.
U.S. Health and Human Services Department officials say the Florida restrictions will not impede the program. "Despite the state's attempts, we are confident that Navigators will still be able to help Floridians enroll in quality, affordable health coverage when open enrollment begins on October 1," Levy said.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)