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Pa. Senate Looks At Registering Healthcare Navigators

By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The Pennsylvania Senate is considering a bill that would impose a new layer of regulations on the federally-certified counselors who help consumers navigate the website.

It's a move that opponents say is intended to hamper the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but sponsor John Eichelberger (R-Blair) calls it consumer protection.

"This is simply a prudent measure that is done with everybody that's licensed," he tells KYW Newsradio.

The bill would require federal navigators to register with the Pa. Insurance Department and undergo criminal background checks.

The bill is similar to one recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that crafts model legislation that can be easily copied and tailored to a particular state.

Conservative legislators in several states have introduced such measures. In Missouri, a federal judge blocked the law, ruling it creating an obstacle to implementing the ACA.

Eichelberger says he worked with the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers (PACHC) on the language and made sure it avoided the areas disputed in the Missouri case.

PACHC director Jim Wilshier says he worked with Eichelberger on changes to the bill because the original wording would have made it impossible for navigators to help low income consumers apply for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The current bill, he says, is "less damaging to consumers" but still contains provisions he believes are duplicative and unnecessary.

Agencies like his that employ navigators already conduct background checks and work closely with the Insurance Department and the navigators themselves must be trained and certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The bill, he says, adds additional steps and fees.

Laura Line of Resources for Human Development, another navigator group, agrees. " I don't think the legislation adds any value to what's already being expected of navigators and certified application counselors," she says.

The bill's  opponents doubt Eichelberger's motives.

"This is part of the overall strategy to try to prevent the full implementation of the affordable care act," says Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila). "I'm really perplexed as to why so many people don't want low-income, working people to get quality health care but that's all this is about."

Hughes notes Pennsylvania declined to set up its own exchange, which would have given the state the opportunity to set rules for navigators. And he says he finds it ironic that Eichelberger, an adamant opponent of all kinds of government regulation, wants to impose more regulations on an already regulated profession.

"It's an ideological conflict," he says.

"We're for making sure the state has a handle on who's doing this," says Eichelberger.

Eichelberger does concede that, after some 350,000 Pennsylvanians enroll in health plans during the first enrollment period, the state received zero complaints about navigators.

"Why would we wait until someone was harmed in some way before we took action?" Eichelberger asks.

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