Health and Science

Give them the money! Democrats ask Trump to unfreeze Obamacare's cash for sign-up helpers

Key Points
  • The Trump administration previously said it would spend much less on the Navigator enrollment assistance program than the Obama administration had.
  • Now, Navigator groups said they are not getting any money at all, despite the fact that the enrollment season is set to begin Nov. 1.
  • The Trump administration also has said it will slash spending on advertising for Obamacare enrollment by 90 percent.
In this 2015 file photo, a man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act.
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A group of 31 Democratic members of Congress asked Trump administration health officials Tuesday to unfreeze millions of dollars in grants for a program that gives Obamacare customers hands-on help signing up for health insurance.

The letter from the House members came four days after a news story detailed how the administration had "quietly stopped funding for the outreach" effort known as the Navigator program.

And it comes less than two months before the Nov. 1 start of open enrollment in health insurance plans sold on government-run Obamacare marketplaces.

Grants for the Navigator program expired Sept. 1. The Trump administration had said it would spend only $36 million on navigators this year, compared with $63 million spent in the prior 12 months, but groups that participate in the program have said they are not getting any money now, and don't know if and when any money will be coming to them.

"As of Monday ... grantees have received no update on when they should expect to receive this essential funding," the Democrats wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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"Disturbingly, we have heard reports that some Navigators have already been laid off because of CMS's highly unusual action," they said.

"As you know, Navigators are essential to the success of Open Enrollment, which begins just a few weeks from now," the House members wrote. "Since its inception, the Navigator program has helped over 9 million consumers learn about their coverage options. Comparing coverage options can be confusing, especially for people who haven't had insurance in the past."

The letter noted that the Trump administration has created "a number of new hurdles" for getting people signed up in health insurance plans.

Those hurdles include the administration slashing the Obamacare outreach and advertising budget by 90 percent, and cutting in half the open enrollment season for 2018 health plans.

The letter also pointed out that if the administration helped people sign up for Obamacare plans, it could strengthen the plans' so-called risk pool by adding more healthy customers to offset the costs of sicker customers.

"Conversely," the House members wrote, "discouraging enrollment could weaken the market and drive up premiums."

"We urge you to unfreeze these funds immediately with a retroactive date of September 2," they concluded.

CNBC has reached out to both HHS and CMS seeking comment on the letter.

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