Politics & Policy

Felonious Obamacare Navigators?

Only six states have laws requiring all types of navigators to pass background checks.

Most states have nonexistent or only partial requirements for background checks for Obamacare navigators. But new legislation introduced in Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia would mandate background checks for all navigators, establishing strict guidelines for what offenses the state would consider disqualifying.

Different states classify types of navigators differently — there are “navigators,” “in-person assistors,” “certified application counselors,” and “health-care guides,” to name a few — but all have the same basic job: helping Americans sign up for health coverage.

These navigators work with vulnerable populations and have access to confidential data, including Social Security numbers, financial information, and health records. Nevertheless, the federal government does not require Obamacare navigators to undergo background checks.

As many as 31 states do not require background checks, suggests a survey compiled in December by Rachel Dolan, a policy specialist for the National Academy for State Health Policy, and analyzed by National Review Online.

Some of these 31 states have passed legislation forbidding felons from working as navigators, and others require navigators to notify the state government if they have upcoming criminal proceedings, but oversight and enforcement of those requirements is minimal at best.

In 13 other states, only some classifications of navigators are subject to background checks, while others are exempt, the NASHP survey suggests; only six states had explicit background-check requirements for all types of navigators.

“There are opportunities for felons to become a navigator,” says Colorado state representative Janak Joshi. “There was nothing in the [health-care law] that was passed in Washington to do any sort of check-up on the backgrounds of these people. . . . We want to remedy this part. And unfortunately, now, we have to do it on a state-by-state level.”

Colorado has a policy against the employment of felonious navigators, but it lacks the mechanisms to ensure that criminals aren’t successfully applying anyway, Joshi says. Furthermore, he points out that even if a convicted felon is caught working as a navigator, the worst the state can do is terminate his employment, not prosecute him.

“This is something that could affect a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent — when identities are stolen, there are no party lines,” Joshi says.

Arizona, where similar legislation is also under consideration, has no background-check requirements whatsoever for navigators, says Arizona state representative Paul Boyer. “That protection should have been in place on Day One,” he says.

The bill in Arizona would not only exclude those with felony records from working as navigators; it would also disqualify anyone with a fraud-related misdemeanor. “Quite often those misdemeanors are pled down,” which means that a conviction for a minor crime could have begun with “a serious charge,” Boyer says. The Arizona legislation has strong support, he adds, but even if it passes, it’s unlikely to go into effect before July or August.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Congress late last year that it was “possible” convicted felons could be serving as navigators, and National Review Online has confirmed at least one instance of this: In Connecticut, one navigator was permitted to work despite having been convicted of a Class-B felony decades earlier.

Earlier in January, records obtained by NRO showed that in New Mexico — one of the states with the most stringent background-check requirements — one in seven certified navigators turned up in the FBI’s criminal database. That doesn’t necessarily signify criminal convictions, but among the charges levied against these navigators were domestic violence, larceny, and child abuse. New Mexico also caught and stopped several would-be navigators who had been charged with serious financial crimes.

New records show that 21 navigator applicants in Connecticut were flagged after the background check. Some had multiple felony convictions. Of these, 17 were dropped from the program. Three were allowed to become navigators despite misdemeanors, in addition to the felon mentioned above.

Similar NRO requests for information about navigators’ criminal records are pending in other states.

State-level legislation requiring background checks would help ensure that consumers are protected when they submit personal and financial information in the course of purchasing health coverage, says Christina Corieri, a Goldwater Institute health-care policy analyst who has helped draft the proposed laws. Louisiana may soon introduce similar legislation, too, she says.

“This is the safe thing that the feds refuse to do,” Corieri says. “The feds were repeatedly warned and repeatedly asked to do something about this, but they simply refused.”  

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.


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