TALLAHASSEE — "Obamacare Enrollment Center,'' announced the banner hanging from the pulpit. It even bore the "O" logo from President Obama's campaign.
But the self-proclaimed "Obamacare Enrollment Team'' that rolled into Florida's capital this week has no official connection with the president or his signature health law. It is a front for a Stuart-based insurance agency now accused of trying to dupe consumers into buying health insurance.
Affordable Care Act advocates long have worried about unofficial sales efforts, and with the law's continued technical problems, frustrated consumers may be increasingly vulnerable to promises of easier access to the system.
Dealing with an unofficial pitch carries at least two problems: First, you could be scammed entirely. Secondly, even if you buy a legitimate insurance policy, you might lose out on tax subsidies offered under the health care law.
The only way lower- and middle-income consumers can get a subsidy is through official channels.
"Obamacare Enrollment Team'' is the brand used by the Fiorella Insurance Agency to market policies during the health care rollout, especially to minorities in urban areas. The group solicits through a network of websites, none of which disclosed ties to the insurance agency until after reporters started poking around. Attorney General Pam Bondi's office received a complaint from a woman who said she worked for Illinois' official health insurance marketplace and became concerned after watching the Obamacare Enrollment Team in action at a Chicago job fair earlier this month. It also has held events in Detroit.
"The website is trying to collect (Social Security numbers)," the complaint said.
About 20 people, all of them African-American and many of them elderly, attended the Obamacare Enrollment Team's forum in Tallahassee. They all were encouraged to provide their names, addresses, signatures — and Social Security numbers.
It wasn't until reporters at the meeting began asking questions that the two presenters — Lakeland pastor H.B. Holmes and self-described "lobbyist" Katrina Copeland — admitted they were affiliated with the Fiorella agency.
"I don't have to be licensed because I am a registered lobbyist with the Senate and the House so I don't have to have a navigator's license," Copeland declared when asked whether she was a navigator.
But though she has submitted paperwork in the U.S. Capitol, she is not an active lobbyist. And even if she were, lobbyists don't receive the training, background checks and certifications that official health care navigator must have. Copeland's presentation suggested she doesn't understand the law.
"The same individuals who have Medicaid could then go under the Affordable Care Act and get private insurance, and then that Medicaid will go back to the states," she told the crowd.
But that's not true. Private insurance is for people who cannot qualify for Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor. And further, the seniors in the crowd should have been told that Obamacare is not for them — Medicare, the program for seniors and the disabled, has nothing to do with the health insurance marketplace.
Nick Fiorella Jr., a vice president at the agency, said in a phone interview that the company's goal is not to confuse people. He noted that the company — after media reports of his team's tactics — has changed its website to say it isn't tied to the federal government and no longer asks for Social Security numbers.
So, why create a so-called "Obamacare Enrollment Team''?
"We're going into mostly urban communities and targeting people who haven't had health insurance," Fiorella said. "They associate these changes with Obamacare. That's what they know the law as, and that's the brand that has rolled out nationally."
Jackson Youmas, executive director of a St. Petersburg nonprofit that works with HIV/AIDs patients, had his whole staff complete federal training to guide consumers through the marketplace. Youmas said he's not surprised to hear people are being misled. He found a suspicious website even before the federal system went live on Oct. 1.
"I think it does open up an opportunity for people who are not honest to take advantage," said Youmas, adding that consumers want to buy insurance.
"If they can't get in (to the marketplace) one way, they might look for another," he said.
Tallahassee Urban League President Ernest Ferrell, a pastor, agreed to host the forum at his church when Holmes reached out to him. But after reporters asked questions, he encouraged the audience not to share their Social Security numbers.
He pledged to look into allegations against the group, but stood by the Obamacare Enrollment Team's mission.
"The point is the information is critically important to the people that we serve," Ferrell said, "and whatever we can do to get that to them we are trying to get."
Indeed, numerous people in the audience said they need information about insurance and don't know where to get it.
The need for outreach is apparent. Top Obama administration officials are being sent to Tampa, Miami and other major cities across the nation to encourage people to sign up through proper channels. Nonprofit organizations like Enroll America have dispatched thousands of volunteers across the nation to aid the effort, including a big push coming this weekend.
Melanie Hall, executive director of Tampa's Family Healthcare Foundation, which received federal funding for 15 navigators, said her crew is doing its best to reach out — and make sure people know they are legitimate.
Her navigators wear name tags with small replications of their licenses. When the group is out at health fairs, it puts a healthcare.gov logo on its table.
Said Hall: "We're going to make sure we're well identified."
Staff writers Alex Leary and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Contact Tia Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.