McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

October 29, 2013

Legal Aid official explains role of navigators in Obamacare

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Oklahoma’s navigators can help consumers log onto the government health care website, create accounts and sign up for health insurance plans.

However, the navigators cannot steer consumers toward a specific policy or collect their personal information, said Gayla Machell, coordinator of the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma’s navigator project.

“This is a very safe process,” she said in an Oct. 22 phone interview from her office in Oklahoma City.

Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm that helps eligible low-income Oklahomans and senior citizens with civil legal problems. The organization has 15 health care navigators in communities across the state, including Ada.

The federal health care law created a special category of workers known as navigators, who are trained to help consumers explore their insurance options and enroll in a plan, Kaiser Health News reported in September. The navigators will play a key role in Obamacare’s success because they are supposed to help consumers determine whether they qualify for federal subsidies or, perhaps, free or low-cost coverage through Medicaid.

At least 17 Republican-controlled states, including Oklahoma, have taken steps to limit what navigators can do, according to Kaiser Health News. The news organization noted that Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak warned navigators earlier this year that they cannot play the same role as state-licensed insurance agents.

“Consumers can feel confident working with licensed agents and brokers and sharing their personal information,” Doak said in August. “These individuals are trained, tested, background checked and insured. Navigators are not regulated by the Insurance Department and cannot provide these assurances. If they perform any of they duties restricted by law to our licensed agents and brokers, we will put a stop to it.”

Machell said the state has not actually restricted the work of navigators, who are following federal rules governing what they can say and do.

“We’re not writing policies,” she said. “We’re not even recommending policies. We’re just helping consumers work through the system.”

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