Fees Charged to Insurance Volunteers in Wisconsin Criticized

By | September 23, 2013

Volunteers who want to help people decipher the new health insurance marketplace when it comes online Oct. 1 must pay for a background check and exam fee as required by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, charges advocates say is deterring involvement.

The cost is even higher for those who can’t take advantage of free training offered through the Wisconsin insurance commissioner’s office. Online training courses run around $150, which is on top of the $75 fee for a required exam. Those who want to be certified as official “navigators,” not just “certified application counselors,” also must pay $39 for a background check and fingerprinting, as well as a $75 state licensing fee.

Wisconsin is not alone in charging the fees, as many other states with Republican governors are doing it. In states where support for the Affordable Care Act is stronger, the fees aren’t being assessed.

Advocates for the poor in Wisconsin are concerned there won’t be enough qualified assisters to help guide consumers through the array of choices they will be faced with in less than two weeks.

“It just stands to reason that the more impediments, the more tests, the higher the costs we impose on people wanting to play this role we’re going to scare away people who otherwise would do a good job,” said David Riemer, senior fellow at the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, a liberal group that focuses on reducing poverty.

Navigators will be especially important in Wisconsin, where Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature has been resistant to the new health care law, opting to let federal officials run its state exchange, an online site where individuals and small businesses can comparison-shop for health insurance.

Navigators will help people with various aspects of choosing an insurance plan on the exchange. For example, they might help someone estimate their family income for 2014, important in determining eligibility for federal tax credits to help pay for coverage. As such, an applicant will have to furnish a Social Security number, tax documents and immigration status.

Because of the access to sensitive personal information, it’s vital for navigators to go through a background check and be fingerprinted as a security measure to prevent fraud, said J.P. Wieske, spokesman for the Wisconsin insurance commissioner’s office.

He also defended the exam requirement.

“We felt it was kind of important that they demonstrate some sort of expertise on insurance issues before helping out vulnerable consumers,” Wieske said.

The fees aren’t serving to deter anyone, Wieske said, pointing out that more than 500 people have already taken advantage of the free training.

However, as of Thursday, only around 100 people had taken the exams required to do the counseling, he said.

Navigators and application counselors aren’t the only people who can help with purchasing insurance on the exchanges. Traditional insurance agents, attorneys and others can also assist, but advocates for the poor worry they won’t have the same depth of knowledge about subsidies available to low-income people than those better-trained in that area.

Even with training offered through the state, some who want to help out still feel like they don’t have enough information, said Bobby Peterson, director of a nonprofit law firm in Madison that helps people get health care.

“There are a lot of deer frozen in the headlights right now,” Peterson said. “I can’t tell you how many people are saying, `We don’t know what to do.”‘

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