TAMPA — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Florida lawmakers' decision to suspend the state's power over health insurance rates leaves consumers at the mercy of the market.
"I got to tell you, I am so baffled at what is going on here," Sebelius said after an appearance Thursday at the University of South Florida.
While Republican legislators have said they are looking out for consumers by refusing to go along with certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, Sebelius said their actions suggest otherwise. "They're basically just saying, 'We're not going to look at these rates,' " she said.
The federal health care law, opposed by most Republican legislators, assumed states would continue to take a lead role in setting insurance rates. Florida legislators, however, suspended that authority for two years, saying federal officials could do it since they were already planning the online insurance exchange. But the federal government says it lacks legal authority to deny rate increases in the states.
Sebelius said she knows of no other state that took such a step; many states, in fact, strengthened their regulatory authority. She said she hopes insurers' competition for customers will keep premiums in check.
"There are some interesting market dynamics that will be very helpful to Florida consumers," she said.
Sebelius was in Tampa to announce $67 million in grants to fund "navigators," workers who will educate consumers about new health insurance options and walk them through the enrollment process.
Florida got $7.8 million, more than half of which is going to a USF-based program called Florida Covering Kids & Families. The nonprofit has successfully enrolled children in health insurance programs and will now use that experience to help adults, said project manager Jodi Ray.
The USF group will work with partners in all but three counties to hire dozens of people to seek out the uninsured and get them enrolled through the online insurance exchanges scheduled to go live on Oct. 1. Other groups will take the lead in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
Pinellas County also received $600,000 for education and outreach efforts.
The grants announced Thursday are the latest piece of the effort to build enrollment. Florida community health centers have received another $8 million for education and outreach.
But that's not a lot of money considering Florida has 3.5 million uninsured people. The federal government, thinking most states would want to serve their own people, didn't anticipate having to run exchanges in nearly three dozen states, which is why it had only $67 million for navigators in those states.
Sebelius said nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society and the NAACP are helping in the effort. "We've always known this would not be exclusively a federal government responsibility," she said.
With just weeks to go until the exchanges open, Sebelius said established organizations were needed to lead the navigators. "We're not talking about people who are starting out with no network," she said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.