WEST PALM BEACH — An advocacy program that signed up thousands of low-income residents and immigrants under the Affordable Care Act for the last year is fighting for survival amid federal budget cuts.
Workers with the Navigator Program operated at Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County assisted more than 17,000 residents in a four-county area with enrolling for federal insurance, also known as Obamacare.
The navigators learned earlier this month that they were not funded to continue into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“We were shocked that we didn’t receive the funding,” said Vicki Tucci, an attorney and team leader with the Navigator program. She said they were notified last week that the program would not be funded. Legal Aid is searching for local funding to keep the team in place.
“The largest concern is the community trusts Legal Aid as a resource. Those people will still be coming to Legal Aid for help. That flow of traffic is not going to stop.”
Legal Aid was on the wrong side of budget cuts that reduced funding by the state by $1 million, down to $6.8 million or the 2015 ACA enrollment and outreach. As a result, three organizations will have navigators to continue assisting new enrollees: University of South Florida, Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners and the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida.
Tucci did not know why the agency was defunded. Officials with the Washington, D.C.-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return repeated calls by the South Florida Times for response. An email with questions to the agency was not answered.
Navigators were put in place in August 2013 by the federal government to help citizens enroll in the health coverage offered under the Affordable Care Act. Tucci, an attorney, is a team leader, while other members are experienced in advocacy work. She said she and coworkers provided outreach and education in Palm Beach, Martin, Hendry and St. Lucie counties.
Tucci has logged statistics to show the extent of their work over the last year: 1,321 direct face-to-face enrollment assistance sessions; 13,784 consumer interactions, including phone bank calls, in-house office calls, emails, face-to face question and answer consultations, and one-on-one enrollment sessions.
“As of Aug. 28, we had reached over 17,000 people,” she said.
For the last month, the Navigators have worked to identify immigrants in South Florida who could lose their new health care benefits by the end of this month if they don’t show proof that they are legally in the United States, and that they’re income tax information is accurate.
More than 200,000 immigrants who bought insurance through President Barack Obama’s health care initiative could lose their coverage this month if they don’t submit proof this week they are legally in the country, but language barriers and computer glitches are hindering efforts to alert them.
The government mailed letters in English and Spanish last month notifying about 300,000 people that if immigration and citizenship documents aren’t submitted, their coverage under the Affordable Care Act will end Sept. 30.
Tucci said she and her team will continue to search for potentially affected customers. She said over the last year, they formed bonds within the immigrant communities, largely Hispanic and Haitian.
“One of the benefits with Legal Aid is internal network of resources,” she said, noting that clients also could get help with immigration, bankruptcies and tax challenges, while getting guidance on applying for health care benefits.
The cuts, she said, will have unintended consequences. “That’s one area that I really see will leave a gap.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.