ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A minute ago, we heard President Obama talk about the many people out there working to make the health care law fail. Well, in fact, House Republicans aren't just trying to defund the law, one House committee is investigating groups that were hired to help people sign up for coverage. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, their tactics are slowing down preparation for the health care rollout next Tuesday.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Lisa Hamler-Fugitt was staring at her computer at work, right before taking off for the long Labor Day weekend, when a nondescript email from the House Energy and Commerce Committee landed in her inbox. At first, she thought nothing of it.
LISA HAMLER-FUGITT: In fact, I thought that it was probably just a sign-on letter, a Dear Colleague letter.
CHANG: Instead, it was a four-page statement from House Republicans, insisting that she turn over reams of information to Congress. Why? Because her organization, the Ohio Association of Food Banks, had recently won a $2 million grant from the federal government to help educate poor, uninsured Americans about how to enroll in the Affordable Care Act. It's called a navigator grant. Congressional Republicans demanded a detailed description of how her group would spend the money, what kind of training her so-called navigators were getting and how they planned to protect private information during outreach efforts.
HAMLER-FUGITT: I was pretty outraged. Our written response to the committee's questions were 118 pages. And the documentation that we provided included 4,684 pages, primarily of emails.
CHANG: The committee only gave her two weeks to respond. So her small staff had to stop all navigator work for a while. And now, days before Obamacare enrollment begins on October 1st, Hamler-Fugitt says her navigators haven't even finished training.
To some House Democrats, that was exactly the goal of this congressional probe.
REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: Well, the Republicans are on a crusade to stop the Affordable Care Act.
CHANG: Henry Waxman is the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
WAXMAN: There's been no wrongdoing that anybody can show. It's as if you took a whole bunch of people and said, we think you may do something wrong and now we want to ask you a lot of questions about your organization.
CHANG: Earlier this year, Republicans were furious after learning the IRS may have targeted conservative groups for lengthy review. Now, House Republicans have singled out about 50 of the more than 100 navigator groups to scrutinize. To be sure, navigators have to be ready for a challenging task. They will help people figure out exactly what plans they can afford, their eligibility for Medicaid, whether they qualify for tax breaks. All of this requires understanding intricate rules.
And Republican Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania doesn't think the navigators will be ready.
REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: It's like that old Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes." I'm not going to pretend that everything's OK if it's not.
CHANG: Murphy oversees the navigator investigation and he says this is no political game he's playing. He says many of the navigators have little experience with health insurance, the timeframe for training is too tight, and navigators will have access to very private data about people.
MURPHY: It's worth asking what will be done with navigators when they obtain personally identifiable information or health records - names, Social Security Number, birthday, other information that can be used. And even in some cases, what if people reveal health problems?
CHANG: For some groups, this congressional inquiry, combined with the strict regulations some states are imposing on navigators, was just too much. That was the case for Cardon Outreach, an organization that helps people enroll in Medicaid. Chuck Kable, Cardon's lawyer, says they simply decided to give back the $800,000 navigator grant after receiving the House committee's letter.
CHUCK KABLE: You know, we're relatively small. And...
KABLE: ...you know, the people that would be involved in that response are high-level executives whose time is extremely valuable.
CHANG: And with some navigators dropping out, Republicans like Tim Huelskamp of Kansas say it won't be their job to answer questions about how to enroll in Obamacare. Congressional offices usually help people solve problems with federal programs, like Social Security or Medicare. But when it comes to Obamacare, Huelskamp says he doesn't have enough information to help.
MURPHY: So we will say, call Kathleen Sebelius' office if you want to figure that out.
CHANG: Meaning it's not his concern, it's the secretary of Health and Human Services' problem.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, The Capitol.
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