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Rockefeller: Morrisey intimidated health group over ACA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Clarksburg-based nonprofit group has abruptly declined a $365,000 federal grant to help West Virginians sign up for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

The decision by West Virginia Parent Training and Information Inc. came a week after state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey directed the nonprofit group to answer 26 questions about the group's personnel and hiring practices.

"We've declined [the grant] because of unforeseen circumstances," said WVPTI Executive Director Pat Haberbosch, who would not elaborate.

Morrisey, who has called for repealing the federal health-care law, is reviewing organizations that are helping to walk people through their health insurance options. Morrisey said the groups' employees could steal personal information, such as Social Security numbers and tax documents, from people who apply for health insurance under the ACA.

WVPTI had planned to help hundreds of low-income, disabled and rural residents in West Virginia enroll in health insurance plans through online marketplaces, which open Oct. 1.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller sharply criticized Morrisey, accusing him of bullying WVPTI and other groups that want to help people sort through health insurance choices.

"Our attorney general, who hates all of this Affordable Health Care Act, has intimidated one of the groups, so they've withdrawn, and it's really something that should be investigated . . . ," said Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said his Charleston-based nonprofit group might apply for the grant money that WVPTI has turned down.

WVPTI's replacement would have just three weeks to hire and train workers.

"It's unclear what the [U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] is going to do at this point," Bryant said. "The question is: Will they have somebody else do this or will West Virginia consumers lose out?"

Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said she didn't know any details about WVPTI's decision to pull out of the "navigator" grant program.

"Our office remains very committed to protecting consumers and ensuring their private information is not put at risk due to unclear and incomplete rules established by the Department of Health and Human Services," Ryan said.

On Aug. 15, the federal government notified WVPTI that it would receive a $365,758 grant to help roll out health-care reform.

Haberbosch said a woman from Morrisey's office called WVPTI before mailing a letter with numerous questions. Haberbosch said she offered to send Morrisey's aide an information packet about WVPTI.

"She said, 'No, we really don't need that,'" Haberbosch recalled.

Days later, Morrisey sent a four-page letter to WVPTI, directing the nonprofit group to disclose its plans for protecting consumer information by Sept. 10.

"I was surprised," Haberbosch said about Morrisey's inquiry, "but, on the other hand, he is the attorney general and has the right to do that if it's based on protecting consumers. That's his job."

Morrisey's letter asked if WVPTI would require employee background checks and credit reports, and if its workers would wear "badges, ID cards or other insignia" to show they were certified counselors.

He also wanted to know about WVPTI's proposed employee monitoring programs, how the group would prevent conflicts of interest, and if it had professional liability insurance.

"As the state's chief legal officer with constitutional, common law and statutory authority to protect our consumers, I intend to use the information gathered to better assess the protections in place for consumer data obtained through the navigator program," Morrisey wrote in the letter to Haberbosch.

The following week, WVPTI notified the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that it would decline the grant money.

Haberbosch did not responded to Morrisey's letter.

The same day Morrisey sent his letter to WVPTI, he sent a Freedom of Information Act request to federal officials, asking for WVPTI's grant application and the scoring standards used to award grant money to the Clarksburg nonprofit group.

Morrisey also requested information about Richmond, Va.-based Advanced Patient Advocacy, the only other group that received federal grant money to work as a health insurance navigator in West Virginia. The Virginia firm was awarded a $276,617 to work with hospitals and help uninsured patients obtain health insurance under the ACA.

A spokesman for Advance Patient Advocacy said the company would not return its grant. The company has been helping uninsured people at hospitals sign up for health insurance for the past 13 years.

"We have confidence in our ability to complete the task at hand," said Rodney Napier, whose company received federal grants to do similar work in three other states.

Napier said Advance Patient Advocacy recently sent a letter to Morrisey, answering all of the attorney general's questions. The company already conducts employee background checks and provides extensive training -- more than what's required under the federal grant rules, he said.

"We actually already responded to all of [Morrisey's] questions and believe our response will satisfy his request," Napier said.

State navigators will provide services to people trying to decide on insurance plans through "health-care exchanges" -- online marketplaces to purchase health insurance. The exchanges will start enrolling applicants on Oct. 1.

"[They are] experts on the marketplace, on how to pick out your health care, and sort of make you relax a little bit better," Rockefeller said.

Last month, Morrisey and a dozen other state attorneys general wrote to federal health officials, alleging that rules fail to ensure navigators will receive adequate training to protect private consumer information. Morrisey also said federal rules don't make clear who's responsible if the navigators' employees steal confidential information.

Federal officials have said the employees must complete 20 hours of training and pass an exam. Insurance applicants' information won't be stored in a database, officials said.

Workers who violate an applicant's privacy or commit fraud will face federal criminal penalties. Grant recipients could be fined $25,000 for each violation.

A spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid said the agency was evaluating how WVPTI's grant funds might be re-distributed.

Consumers can obtain information about the new health insurance plans at community health centers and by going online at www.healthcare.gov.

Last week, U.S. House Republicans sent letters to 51 of 104 groups that received more than $67 million in grants to serve as navigators, according to a Kaiser Health News report. The letters from the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee requested copies of all communications between navigator groups and any government agency about their grants.

The organizations said the letter has had a "chilling effect" on their ability to hire and train workers. The Obama administration called the letter a "blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate," according to the Kaiser report.

Bryant, of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said Morrisey and other Republicans are playing politics with people's health care.

"Those who oppose the Affordable Health Care Act understand this is their last gasp," said Bryant, whose group applied for a navigator grant earlier this year but didn't make the final cut. "If enrollment goes well, it's to their detriment. It's Custer's last stand."

Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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