Sedgwick County commissioners get heated about grant to train ‘navigators’ for health care coverage

11/19/2013 12:02 PM

11/19/2013 12:03 PM

A debate among Sedgwick County commissioners about whether to accept a grant to train Comcare employees to sign up clients under the federal Affordable Care Act ended with the chairman calling for order Tuesday.

“The chair is in charge here!” Chairman Jim Skelton proclaimed as Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Dave Unruh debated the $2,400 grant from a non-profit group. “We’re not going to sit here and argue.”

At issue was a grant from the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved to help defray the cost of training employees at Comcare, the county’s mental health agency, as “navigators” of the health insurance exchange.

Peterjohn and Commissioner Richard Ranzau opposed the grant, saying the county has clearly come out against the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

“We don’t need to be getting involved,” Ranzau said, calling the federal health insurance exchange a “job killer.”

Peterjohn noted that the county included opposition to Obamacare in its legislative platform.

But County Manager William Buchanan said the grant would help county residents “who come in the door and don’t know how to sign up.”

Navigators help people research insurance plans and possible federal subsidies to pay for insurance through the health exchange, which was created under the Affordable Care Act. The online insurance marketplace has been plagued with technical problems since its rollout Oct. 1.

“To not do this doesn’t seem like we’re acting like good government officials,” Unruh said. “We have to do this anyway, give people the help” they need to sign up.

Peterjohn, however, said “if we’re going to be navigators, we’re taking on implicit liability” and endorsing Obamacare.

At that point, Unruh asked Peterjohn if he was going to turn people away.

Peterjohn told Unruh he should just admit he endorses Obamacare.

Unruh told Peterjohn not to put words in his mouth. Peterjohn told Unruh not to put words in his mouth.

Peterjohn said he didn’t say he was going to turn people away.

After admonishing them for arguing, Skelton asked “Who has the floor?”

“I don’t want it,” Unruh said, which elicited chuckles from other officials at the weekly meeting between commissioners and department heads.

Last week, Peterjohn said he thought the county mental health program should be separate from the federal health program, “the same way some people think there should be a separation of church and state.”

Ranzau said last week that Comcare employees have other duties and should concentrate on those instead of trying to help people with the health exchange.

Although commissioners probably will discuss the grant further during their meeting Wednesday, Buchanan told Skelton after the meeting that he already had accepted the money, which will help pay employees’ salaries for the time they spend taking the 20-hour navigator training course.

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