The Navigators Are the Real Obamacare Battleground

The Obamacare navigators program has one goal: to guide the uninsured through the enrollment process in states that have resisted the law. For conservatives, however, the program represents a Democrat-led movement to add poor people to the public dole and turn red states blue.

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The Obamacare navigators program has one goal: to guide the uninsured through the enrollment process in states that have resisted the law. For some conservatives, however, the program represents a Democrat-led movement to add poor people to the public dole and turn red states blue. Texas, a state with lot of insured but little interest in implementing Obamacare, has criticized the navigators vetting system (which states are allowed to customize) even as it used it to mandate a strict vetting process. Meanwhile, a conservative undercover video journalist have tried to discredit the whole program based on the remarks of a few people in one city.

The only thing conservatives disapprove of more than Obamacare are the navigators tasked with helping people enroll in health insurance plans — they're either liars and thieves or, worse, liberals spreading Obama propaganda. As Michelle Malkin put it in May, this "nanny-state navigator corps" has two goals, to "propagandize and enroll Obamacare recipients." Note her use of recipients. But it's not a coincidence that the states that are most against these navigators are also the ones most opposed to everything else concerning the law. After all, the navigators program only operates in states that declined to set up their own state-run exchanges. Whatever flaws the program and the navigators themselves have, this battle is mainly ideological.

Texas vs. Obamacare

Sen. Ted Cruz has been fighting to stop the flow of money to the program, while his counterpart, Sen. John Cornyn, has raised a number of concerns over the navigator program, specifically the trustworthiness of the people being recruited to the program. Last week, during the Senate Finance Committee's hearing on Obamacare, Cornyn asked if there's a "federal requirement for navigators to undergo a criminal background check." Sebelius acknowledged there isn't one, then added: "States could have an additional background check and other features, but it is not part of the federal requirement."

The thing is, that's true. States can issue restrictions and regulations on the navigator program to protect consumers. Or, in the case of Ohio and Missouri, make it more difficult for navigators to work with consumers. Though Texas state contractors require background checks for those working under them, the state of Texas doesn't require background checks for the workers who help people sign up for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and cash assistance programs, according to Stephanie Goodman of Texas' Health and Human Services Commission.

And while Sens. Cruz and Cornyn have tried to fight the navigator program in Congress, Gov. Rick Perry has exercised his right to define navigator standards and introduced the strictest navigator rules in the country. Last month, The El Paso Times reported:

Perry last month instructed [Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia] Rathgeber to require that Texas navigators get an additional 40 hours of training, undergo a rigorous state-administered exam, submit to background checks and report names and other information about people they sign up to the state for inclusion in a database.

Perry instructed Rathgeber to charge a fee to cover the cost of enforcing the regulations.

As it is, the Obama administration has been struggling to train enough navigators to meet demands in states that are determined to block Obamacare by ignoring it. Perry also declined to expand Medicaid, which will leave 1.5 million Texans uninsured.

Project Veritas vs. Obamacare

Conservatives would argue that the navigator backlash is solely about protecting consumer information. And a new undercover video from Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe seems to validate at least some of those fears. In the video a young man goes undercover in a Dallas navigator office, where navigators appear to recommend lying on tax returns to keep premiums low and subsidies high.

You might remember O'Keefe as the conservative investigative journalist who, in 2010, uncovered ACORN members seemingly willing to give him advice on smuggling underaged girls into America to become prostitutes. Or, you might remember him as the man who, this year, paid a $100,000 settlement to a man who appeared in one of those videos and later called the police on him. In the selectively edited navigator video (in at least one instance, the same damning soundbite is used twice in different conversations), Dallas navigators tell a young man to not report his cash income and not mention that he's a smoker, to keep his premiums down.

That's bad, and will probably get that navigator fired, but the real scandal here is the association between Battleground Texas, a Democratic political action committee dedicated to turning Texas blue, and Enroll America, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. O'Keefe alleges that they're in cahoots, possibly acting inappropriately and definitely spreading left-wing propaganda. "Signing people up for healthcare and changing the politics of Texas seem to go hand in hand," O'Keefe says in a voice over. Well, yes, in the sense that Texas conservatives seem to be against both.

To be clear, navigators with access to sensitive private, personal and financial information should be screened. But a suggestion doesn't need to be a reason to shut down an entire program. "Hey, Kathleen, I think people might feel more comfortable if the federal government required criminal background checks for navigators," Sen. John Cornyn could have said during last week's hearing. And Secretary Sebelius could have replied "You know, John, we're open to looking at that. I'm sure the Republican House and Democratic Senate wouldn't have a problem agreeing on an amendment to a law neither has tried to defund recently." Likewise, both sides can agree that navigators should not encourage people to lie to cheat the government. But since we haven't disbanded the Internal Revenue Service because people lie on their tax returns, we should make the same efforts to regulate and deter fraud.

In that sense, Republicans have already won. The shutdown failed to repeal Obamacare, but the administration agreed to detail how it verifies consumer incomes in a series of reports. So even if, in the worst case scenario, there are commie identity thieves running wild as navigators, there will be steps to verify income. And there will be less uninsured people in the country, which is probably a good thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.