Kansas weighs regulating health care 'navigators'

3/11/2014

TOPEKA (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas moved Tuesday to regulate counselors who help consumers navigate an online insurance marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul that most of the state's GOP officials strongly oppose.

TOPEKA (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas moved Tuesday to regulate counselors who help consumers navigate an online insurance marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul that most of the state's GOP officials strongly oppose.

The state Senate gave first-round approval to a bill to require health care "navigators" to register with the attorney general's office by July 2015, pay a $100 annual fee, submit their fingerprints and undergo background checks. The attorney general's office also would handle complaints about navigators.

The Senate's voice vote set up a final vote, which is expected Wednesday and will determine whether the bill goes to the House. Democrats derided the bill as a political statement against the federal health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, but conceded the measure is likely to pass both chambers because of their large GOP majorities.

The bill is sponsored by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, and its chairwoman, Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, is a vocal critic of the 2010 federal health care law. Opposition from GOP lawmakers like her and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback kept the state from establishing its own online marketplace or partnering with the federal government.

Pilcher-Cook said the regulations would protect consumers from financial fraud and identity theft and prevent convicted felons from becoming navigators.

"When the federal health care law was passed, it didn't give any specifics for a process to secure ethical and well-screened insurance navigators to handle personal information of health insurance enrollees," Pilcher-Cook said. "The federal government ignored protection of the consumer."

More than a dozen other states are attempting to regulate navigators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Missouri, a federal judge in January blocked that state's rules, concluding that if Missouri refused to set up its own marketplace, it could attempt to impose additional restrictions on the federally run one.

Kansas has about 170 navigators, most trained by the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, which conducts background checks. The association and other health care groups opposed the bill, and Democrats said the measure is unnecessary.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said that if legislators wanted more control over the navigators, they should have set up a state-run online marketplace.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, another Topeka Democrat, said: "It's a political statement. It has nothing to do with trying to help health care consumers."

The Senate's debate came as new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures showed Kansas residents are enrolling in plans through the online marketplace more slowly than anticipated.

The federal agency reported Tuesday that 29,309 residents in Kansas chose plans through the marketplace by March 1. HHS had projected that 42,400 Kansans would enroll by the end of February.

Still, the number grew 31 percent in February, up from 22,388 at the end of January.

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Online:

Information about bill on health care navigators: http://bit.ly/1haGV4Z

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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