Beware anybody trying to help people sign up for health insurance under Obamacare.
That’s the line from top Senate Republicans, who have magnified their smear campaign against the law’s so-called navigators, groups that have received federal money to assist people in enrolling for coverage. Their latest shot: darkly warning that Americans could put their personal and financial safety at risk if they seek out assistance.
Republicans have a longstanding animosity toward the navigators — state officials in a number of red states have put up roadblocks for them — but the comments of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are a new extreme in the party’s assault on those tasked with helping Americans navigate the health reform law.
It all seems to have stemmed from a line of questioning that Cornyn posed to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Nov. 6, at a hearing that was supposed to focus on HealthCare.gov.
“Isn’t it true that there is no federal requirement for navigators to undergo a criminal background, even though they will receive personal — sensitive personal information from the individuals they helped sign up for the Affordable Care Act?” Cornyn inquired.
“That is true. States could add an additional background check and other features, but it is not part of the federal requirement,” Sebelius replied.
“So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual, unbeknownst to them,” Cornyn said.
“That is possible,” Sebelius said. “We have contracts with the organizations, and they have taken the responsibility to screen their individual navigators and make sure that they are sufficiently trained for the job.”
But Republicans only heard the first part. A top administration official had admitted on the most public of stages that a convicted felon might possibly have access to the “sensitive personal information” of Americans. Never mind that states can add the background check requirement if they so choose. Or perhaps as importantly, never mind that many navigators are well known and respected community groups: local United Way chapters, higher education institutions and the like.
Those groups have been given one of the law’s most important tasks: explaining a complex insurance system and its reforms to the average American. But that didn’t stop the GOP’s outrage machine from kicking into top gear.
The next day on the Senate floor, McConnell seized on Sebelius’s comments: “These revelations are really concerning.”
“Americans who’ve lost their insurance and find themselves forced onto the exchanges — the last thing they need is to worry about some felon stealing their identity,” he said.
Then last week, Cornyn called on the Obama administration to shutter the navigator program altogether, citing Sebelius’s testimony and a video by the conservative activist group known as Project Veritas, which is overseen by James O’Keefe, which purportedly shows a navigator encouraging one of their clients to lie on their insurance application.
O’Keefe, you might remember, is the conservative gadfly who was responsible for the ACORN sting video and other notorious gotcha videos.
“It is simply astounding that the administration is urging the American people to give their Social Security numbers and sensitive personal information to people who have not been properly vetted,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “We need to also dismantle the navigators program before it unleashes a wave of fraud and corruption.”
Rubio has also gotten in on the action. He introduced legislation Nov. 7 that would, among other things, require background checks for navigators. In a Miami Herald op-ed last week, he further stoked fears of fraud and malfeasance on the part of navigators — though he had no specific examples to give.
The exploitation of innocent Americans by felonious navigators was simply, in Rubio’s words, inevitable.
“As time goes on, we will inevitably see more cases of people fraudulently posing as navigators, collecting personal information and then exploiting innocent victims,” he wrote. “This is a recipe for people falling prey to fraud, identity theft or gross incompetence by those operating as Obamacare navigators.”
Correction: This post originally incorrectly connected James O’Keefe to video of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod that led to her resignation. We regret the error.