By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Individual counties in Florida have decided not to follow state officials in their call to block federal employees tasked with enrolling Floridians for health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.
Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials have a picked a fight over these federal employees, which are also known as navigators. Chiefly, officials have argued that these health exchange navigators are not properly suited to handle medical information, which Scott and others claim could cause invasions of privacy.
Scott has gone as far as to petition Congress to take action over this issue and has told county health departments in Florida not to allow the navigators in their building. However, not all county health departments are following this order. The first to fight the ban was Pinellas County. Earlier this month, county officials found a legal loophole that allowed them to defy the state. The Tampa Bay Times reported:
Pinellas County Health Department Director Dr. Claude Dharamraj, a state employee, pointed something out to officials in Tallahassee.
“All our buildings are county property,” she wrote in an email. Not only does Pinellas County own the buildings, it also shares office space in four of them with the state, she observed.
“I believe I am not in the position to dictate to (the county) what kind of staff they put in their office,” she wrote.
It appears her bosses agreed.
Later that day, Dharamraj notified county commissioners that the navigators will be allowed into county health department offices.
…The space-sharing could lead to a scenario in which DOH staff send people across the hall for help with insurance.
Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch was relieved that a compromise was found around the state’s ban.
“It reminds me of the ’60s with the governor standing at the door and federal marshals having to come in,” he said, referring to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s attempts to stop desegregation of the state university by literally blocking the door to the enrollment office.
Since Pinellas County’s move, another county plans to follow in its footsteps. The Miami Herald reported this week that “Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs will offer a resolution at Tuesday’s county commission meeting that would allow Affordable Care Act “navigators” and counselors at Florida Department of Health facilities in Broward County.” The Herald also notes that since the commission is comprised mostly of Democrats, it is mostly likely going to pass. According to the Herald:
In her resolution, Jacobs adopted Pinellas County’s argument that the state cannot prevent Obamacare advisors from health department buildings because the county owns most of those facilities.
Of the eight Florida health offices in Broward, the county owns seven of the buildings and leases them to the state Health Department.
The state health department notified its county health field offices two weeks ago that Obamacare navigators, federal employees trained to help people obtain health insurance under the new system, would be barred from “the grounds of the health departments.” That notice caused several Pinellas County commissioners in that mostly Democratic county to protest.
The protest apparently forced state health officials there to backtrack. The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that Obamacare enrollment navigators would be allowed into health department buildings in Pinellas County.
“It is criminal that anyone would put their foot out to trip up that process for sharing [Affordable Care Act] information,” Broward Mayor Jacobs said in an interview. “You can’t tell us that we can’t do that in our own facility.”
Other counties are relying on community-based groups to provide assistance for signing up for the state health insurance exchange. The exchanges, which were set up by the federal government because state officials opted out of doing it themselves, will go online October 1.