MIAMI — Gov. Rick Scott is joining other Republicans lawmakers around the country in questioning privacy issues surrounding the navigators hired to walk people through their health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act.
"What we do not know is how this information will be shared among federal agencies or if the federal government will also distribute it to outside groups," Scott said in a statement.
Scott said there are many serious, unanswered questions and he plans to discuss the issue with his cabinet at a meeting Tuesday in Miami.
His remarks came shortly after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited Tampa last week to announce that the state would receive nearly $8 million in grants to hire navigators to assist with the state exchange. That online site is the location where individuals and small businesses can shop for health insurance.
Federal health officials said applicant information is not stored in a database, but is instead transferred instantaneously through a secure hub. For example, IRS officials won't have access to health information or information about an applicant's immigration status.
"The only information that is checked with an agency is the information that is applicable to that agency," said Brian Cook, spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Navigators will help people with various aspects of choosing an insurance plan under the new state exchange, which will begin enrolling applicant Oct 1. For example, they might help someone estimate their family income for 2014, important in determining eligibility for federal tax credits to help pay the cost of coverage. As such, an applicant will have to furnish a Social Security number, tax documents and immigration status to determine eligibility for benefits.
Applicants may even choose to get more personal with the health information they share. For example, an applicant could tell a navigator they are a breast cancer survivor and seek help picking a plan that includes a favorite specialist or certain medications. Thousands of similar counselors have been helping applicants in the Medicare program for years.
Navigators must complete a 20- to 30-hour training program developed by the federal government and pass an exam to be certified. Strict security and privacy standards will be part of the training. They will be subject to federal criminal penalties for violations of privacy or fraud laws. Background checks are not required, but federal health officials said some of the organizations that received grants may opt for background checks and some state laws may already require it. The Montana Legislature recently passed a law requiring navigators to undergo criminal background checks.
Navigators will be especially important in Florida where the federal government is tasked with getting the message out to roughly 3.5 million uninsured residents. The Republican-controlled legislature has been resistant to the Affordable Care Act and opted to let federal officials run its exchange. The state isn't spending any additional money on outreach efforts.
Attorney General Pam Bondi is among attorneys general in 13 states who sent a letter to Sebelius last week questioning whether there will be enough protection of consumer data in the Navigator program, saying the agency's current guidelines "suffer numerous deficiencies."
Republican Congresswoman Diane Black also has repeatedly expressed privacy concerns in the program. The access these 'Navigators' will be given to private Americans' records present staggering opportunities for fraud and abuse," the Tennessee lawmaker said in a statement.
In May, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, also wrote a letter to Sebelius on behalf of the House Committee on Ways and Means amid concerns that navigators will have access to sensitive taxpayer information.