Two commissioners oppose grant to train health care enrollment navigators

Citing their unyielding opposition to the Affordable Care Act, two Sedgwick County commissioners are trying to block acceptance of a grant to train mental health employees to help clients sign up for coverage through the federal health insurance exchange.

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau objected to the grant during commission comments at the end of Wednesday’s meeting. The board agreed to bring it back for further discussion at an upcoming workshop before allowing the county manager to accept the money.

The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved offered the county $2,400 to help defray the salary cost of training employees at Comcare, the county mental health agency, as “navigators” of the health insurance exchange.

The 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.

In opposing the grant to train employees as navigators, Peterjohn and Ranzau noted that the county has passed a resolution opposing the act.

“Our policy has been opposition to having anything to do with Obamacare,” Peterjohn said. He added that he thinks 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 Comcare employees have other duties and should concentrate on those instead of trying to help people with the health exchange.

“We don’t need mission creep at Comcare,” he said.

County Manager William Buchanan, who ordinarily could have approved acceptance of the grant, said it would benefit the county and residents who don’t have insurance.

More than 76 percent of Comcare’s $38.8 million in annual revenue comes from fees for services provided. Helping clients get insurance helps protect the county from losses due to unpaid bills, Buchanan said.

The purpose of the grant is “to help vulnerable people get insurance, so we get paid.”

He said he understands that some people don’t like the Affordable Care Act, “but that’s no reason to hurt people who are in need.”

The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved is a nonprofit consortium of hospitals, community mental health clinics, health departments, area agencies on aging and the state Insurance Department, said the group’s executive director, Cathy Harding. It acted as an umbrella group to apply for federal navigator training money on behalf of clinics and agencies on aging throughout the state, she said.

“This tiny amount of federal funding could go a long way in helping people to access health care coverage that they need,” she said.

Navigator training is a 20-hour online course. The training itself is free; the grant is to help pay the employees’ salaries for the time they spend taking the course, Harding said.

She said she’s surprised Sedgwick County is balking at accepting the grant money, which hasn’t been controversial anywhere else.

“I just hope that at some point everyone could lay politics aside and consider the people of their community and what they need,” she said.

Ranzau said he has considered the people of the community and that opposing the Affordable Care Act would be best for them.

“The net effect of Obamacare is negative,” he said. “It’s driving people off the regular insurance and it’s going to increase the cost. It’s hurting individuals and it’s hurting our community.”