Cuts suspend efforts by local Affordable Care Act outreach office

Affordable Care Act Navigator Ron Irvine, left, helps Dayton resident Kenneth Flowers, 56, get reconnected to the government website after Flowers got disconnected on Monday, the deadline for signing up for government healthcare TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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Affordable Care Act Navigator Ron Irvine, left, helps Dayton resident Kenneth Flowers, 56, get reconnected to the government website after Flowers got disconnected on Monday, the deadline for signing up for government healthcare TY GREENLEES / STAFF

The Dayton office that locally handles marketing and enrollment assistance for Affordable Care Act insurance has been suspended after staff members said the Trump administration slashed outreach funding.

The four staff members with Resolute Certified Navigators, which serves a 15 county area in western Ohio, were sent home while they await word on what kind of resources the local office will have to work with after its $245,000 federal grant didn’t come through last week.

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“I think this all took everyone by surprise,” said Glenn Hughes, grant project director with Resolute Certified Navigators, who said the group received notice a little before 5 p.m. on Aug. 31 that it wasn’t getting the federal grant it was supposed to receive Sept. 1 to fund it for the next 12 months.

Hughes said he will be speaking on Wednesday with a representative with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to learn more about its status, but for now the four staff members are home and can use their paid time off days.

The budget cuts add on to the challenge of getting Ohioans enrolled in a shorter open enrollment period this year, according to Hughes. People will need to enroll by between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, compared to last year’s longer enrollment period from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31.

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The Trump administration has cut the marketing and advertising budget for open enrollment in Obamacare plans from $100 million to $10 million. Also, the New York Times reported grants to about 100 nonprofit groups, known as navigators, that can help people one-on-one with enrolling in the right health plans offered by the insurance marketplaces will be cut to a total of $36 million, from about $63 million.

Last year navigator groups as a whole enrolled 80,000 people in U.S. or about 0.7 percent of overall enrollees who signed up for 2017 marketplace plans.

The insurance marketplaces have struggled with instability, failing to attract enough healthy people to subsidize the high cost of sicker policy holders, and the marketing and outreach efforts are in part intended to help address these problems. While a person with high medical bills might make it a priority to seek out a health insurance plan, healthy young people are more likely to need persuaded to purchase a coverage option.

The Trump administration cited the declining number of first-time enrollees in Affordable Care Act coverage, which fell by 42 percent this year compared with 2016, for the cuts. In addition, the administration said that many navigator groups failed to meet their enrollment targets, and the funding for navigator groups depended on how close they came to meeting their enrollment goal in 2017.

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Hughes said with less funding, they could do their job with less staff and less advertising, but he questioned whether they would be able to be as effective at helping people get enrolled, understand Medicaid options or enter the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which helps families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but are still in need.

“It’s like everyone is up in the air. The organizations like ourselves, we can continue to do this but we’re going to have to cut back … and then is it really doing its job and getting the information out to the public?” he said.

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Affordable Care Act enrollmen by the numbers

80,000: Number of people nationally enrolled by health care navigators last year.

45: Number of days this year to open enroll in a plan sold on the ACA marketplace, starting Nov. 1. This is down from the 92 day open enrollment window last year.

$90 million: The amount cut nationally from the advertising and marketing budget for Affordable Care Act enrollment. The budget was $100 million but was cut 90 percent.

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