Obamacare's counselors caught in partisan battle

(CBS News) Five days before those new state health insurance exchanges open for business,President Obama was out encouraging folks to sign up for Obamacare.

But while he was doing that, his administration revealed a couple of new glitches. A Spanish-language enrollment Web site won't be up and running for a few more weeks, and there will be a one-month delay for small businesses to sign up. Counselors known as "navigators" are to help folks with the enrollment process, but they've become targets in the partisan battle over Obamacare.

In Florida, there are eight navigator organizations. Adrian Madriz works as a navigator at the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida in Miami.

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"A patient navigator is somebody who provides unbiased information about the plans in the marketplace," he explains. "We cannot make any kinds of recommendations one way or the other about the kinds of plans that are offered therein."

Adrian Madriz works as a navigator at the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida in Miami, guiding people in the enrollment process of the health insurance plans under the Affordable Health Care Act. CBS News

The $67 million program is funded and regulated by the federal government. Navigators must pass 20 hours of training before they can help people navigate Web sites called marketplaces or exchanges that detail the different coverage options.

"There is a significant portion of the training devoted to make sure that patient navigators are aware of the sensitivity of information that they will be dealing with," said Madriz.

The Medicare program has used similar counselors in all 50 states. But Florida is among 14 states that have placed restrictions on navigators that include training and licensing requirements.

"It's like somebody who does your income tax," said Georgia State Rep. Richard Smith. "You want them to be knowledgeable in what they're doing."

Georgia State Rep. Richard Smith sponsored a law in Georgia to regulate navigators like insurance agents. He denies it's too thwart Obamacare. CBS News

Smith sponsored a law in Georgia to regulate navigators like insurance agents. So why do states like Georgia need to jump in when there are federal regulations already in place?

"There are federal regulations." said Smith. "But we found there needed to be an extra step. You can't take somebody off street without adequate training."

But critics say the real reason states are regulating navigators is to obstruct the controversial program. Last month, Georgia's state insurance commissioner, Ralph Hudgens, said at a Republican Party gathering: "Let me tell you what we're doing -- everything in our power to be an obstructionist." Hudgens denied our request for an interview.

Smith denied that there was anything obstructive in the law he helped pass in Georgia. "We can't thwart Obamacare," he said, "because it's the law of the land."

There are nearly 60 navigators in Georgia. As of last Friday, just one has been licensed.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.