The Trump administration is cutting tens of millions of dollars from organizations that help Americans enroll in Obamacare health plans, leaving some of the groups scrambling to shrink their operations weeks before enrollment for 2018 coverage opens on Nov. 1.
The organizations, called navigators, say the funding cuts have been arbitrary, opaque and don’t follow the Trump administration’s stated method for calculating the reductions. The groups had been counting on money for the final year of a three-year grant program, and most didn’t learn how deep the cuts would be until after last year’s funding expired on Sept. 1.
When the Trump administration announced in late August that it would make the reductions, it said they would hold inefficient groups accountable and navigators that met prior enrollment goals would maintain funding.
Navigator groups say it hasn’t worked out that way.
Catherine Edwards, the executive director of the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said her group helped 3,945 people last year sign up for health insurance, exceeding their goal. Their grant was cut 62 percent, to $349,251, from $919,902.
“This administration has been doing everything it can to make sure the Affordable Care Act fails,” Edwards said. “They’re tying our hands behind our back to make sure this does fail.”
Edwards’ group had to cut enrollment help and advertising, and will will field 52 navigators this year, down from 72, leaving some rural parts of the state without any enrollment assisters.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide data on navigator groups’ performance or to explain why some organizations that appeared to meet their goals were cut.
Navigators focus on enrolling people with complex family or financial situations, and offer in-person assistance to those who have trouble enrolling online because of language barriers or lack of internet access. Some groups serve ethnic enclaves or vulnerable communities unreached by broader marketing campaigns.
The cuts are likely to hit rural areas the hardest, potentially depressing enrollment in parts of the country where insurers have already pulled back.
President Donald Trump, having watched Republicans in Congress fail to repeal the Affordable Care Act, has taken aim at the law using regulations and executive actions. On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order to make it easier for people to buy insurance that doesn’t meet the ACA’s standards, potentially drawing healthy people out of the ACA market. Late that evening, the administration said it would stop making subsidy payments to insurers that help lower-income people afford co-pays and other cost-sharing.
“We’re starting that process” of repeal and replace, Trump said at the White House Thursday.
The administration has also slashed advertising for Obamacare signups by 90 percent, and plans to take down the healthcare.gov website for maintenance periods in the middle of the season. Premiums for next year are rising as insurers say they’re uncertain about the law’s future.
What happened to Edwards’ group in Missouri has happened around the country.
Covering Wisconsin, the larger of two navigator programs in that state, enrolled 2,287 people in private health plans and another 1,370 people in Medicaid last year, exceeding targets for both, director Donna Friedsam said in an email. Its funding was cut from to $576,197 this year, from $998,960 last year, a 42 percent reduction. As a result, its navigators won’t be in 11 of the 23 counties it served over the last year.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the primary navigator in the state, helped nearly 9,000 Ohioans enroll in private plans and another 35,000 apply for Medicaid since 2013. The group “met, nearly met, or exceeded” goals for four years, said executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt. Despite that, funding was cut by 71 percent, to $485,000, from $1.7 million.
The funding cuts seem like sabotage, not accountability, Hamler-Fugitt said. Her group closed its navigator program and let most of its staff go rather than try to sustain it at the lower funding level.
“If we were such poor performers, why were we not notified and corrective action taken? Because we weren’t,” she said.
Along with the navigator cuts and other regulatory moves, confusion over Obamacare’s fate will likely lead to “a smaller, sicker group of enrollees,” said Sabrina Corlette, research professor at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.
Customers who don’t shop around for coverage could “have huge sticker shock” if they do nothing and are automatically re-enrolled in their current plans, Corlette said.
The navigator grants are funded by a levy on health plans in the insurance marketplaces, which benefit from the marketing and outreach. Trump administration officials didn’t respond to questions about how unspent fees would be used.
The Trump administration said in August that it would cut funding to the navigators by 39 percent, down from $62.5 million the last enrollment period. The cuts apply only to states that have health-care markets run by the federal government — 16 operate their own.
They were announced just days before the new grants were supposed to begin. The agency had affirmed grant amounts earlier in the year.
“All indications were everything was going very well,” said Allen Gjersvig, director of navigator and enrollment services at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers. Staff at CMS told the group as late as Aug. 28 that the funding was on track, he said. Days later, the Alliance’s navigator grant was cut from about $1.1 million to $700,000.
His confusion isn’t unique. Of the 48 navigator programs that responded to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half said no rationale was provided, and another 40 percent said the explanation was “very or somewhat unclear.”
The Palmetto Project in South Carolina had its navigator grant cut from $1.1 million to $500,000, and will have 30 navigators instead of the 62 it planned on, said Shelli Quenga, the organization’s director of programs. It plans to leave some rural areas without in-person help.
“I think there will be people who choose poorly,” Quenga said. “There will also be people who just give up.”