Topics: Obamacare

Obamacare 'navigators' program invites massive fraud

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Photo - President Barack Obama reaches for a pen to sign the health care bill, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama reaches for a pen to sign the health care bill, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Editorial,Obamacare,President,Health and Human Services,Health Care,Medicare and Medicaid,Analysis,Waste and Fraud

That identity theft and insurance scams will occur once the Obamacare mandate kicks in on Oct. 1 is one of the few things on which supporters and opponents of the program agree. The reason is simple: Thousands of poorly trained "navigators" -- they're certified after 20 hours of online study -- will be assisting people who sign up for Obamacare.

Paid $58 per application and $25 per annual renewal, these navigators will gain access to Social Security numbers, tax information and other sensitive personal information. They will not have to undergo background checks. The Department of Health and Human Services will not verify their employment histories. Nor will HHS check to see if they have criminal records.

The opportunity and incentive for fraud have rarely been so inviting.

"All it takes is a couple of those folks [to] really do damage to someone's financial or health care information," said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance. "Make sure you confirm who they are, that they absolutely are a trained and certified enrollment counselor." California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat, said that there is no plan for investigating complaints of navigator abuse in the California exchange. So victims of identity theft and other scams will find it difficult to seek relief. "We can have a real disaster on our hands," Jones said.

But navigators aren't the only people consumers have to worry about. "This is the huge, new government program," said Lois Greisman, associate director for the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices. "There's no doubt in my mind that fraudsters view it as an opportunity to rip people off." One scam has already been reported. A fake telemarketer promises to send an Obamacare card if they are given personal and financial information.

Fake Obamacare enrollment sites are appearing, too. "We've already noticed in paid searches there are websites coming up that have nothing to do with Obamacare," said Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Elizabeth Abbott, director of administrative advocacy for Health Access California, shares her concern: "There are people licking their chops and saying, 'a sucker is born every minute.'"

That's a frightening thought. The federal government will be providing minimal training to legions of people who bear a striking resemblance to community organizers, and who in their official capacities can demand access to sensitive individual information.

California isn't the only state worried about fraud. Florida State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the state legislature's banking and insurance committee, said "any time you have the government putting out a pot of money, you can be absolutely assured there will be a multitude of schemes to get to it."

There are steps that consumers can take to avoid being swindled. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, for example, that no one from the exchanges would sell a plan over the phone. She also said consumers should confirm whether a plan is listed on the government's website. This means that seniors who are not web-savvy will be be among the most vulnerable to identity predators.

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