New Texas rules could create added burden in health insurance sign-ups, critics say

As more Texans successfully signed up for insurance on a retooled federal health care website Tuesday, the state proposed rules that critics say could pose new hurdles for those seeking insurance.

The rules would strengthen protections for consumers seeking help from so-called navigators who help people sign up for health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. Texas Republican leaders applauded the move, but critics, including state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said some of the proposed regulations could be burdensome and might undermine the intended effects in Texas of the federal law overhauling the nation’s health insurance system.

The proposed rules call for criminal background checks of navigators and increasing the hours required for privacy training by up to 200 percent. Federal rules already require navigators to be trained for 20 to 30 hours. The state would add an additional 40 hours.

Commissioner of Insurance Julia Rathgeber said in a statement that the proposed rules address “insufficiencies in federal regulations.”

“In Texas, we are being vigilant about safeguarding privacy and keeping personal information out of the wrong hands,” the commissioner said in the statement.

If approved by January, most of the proposed rules would go into effect in March.

Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to Rathgeber in September directing her to strengthen privacy protections for consumers who use the navigators. Perry refused to have Texas run its own health insurance marketplace, and left the job to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Texas Department of Insurance is empowered by Senate Bill 1795, sponsored by Watson, to set new state standards for navigators, according to the agency’s statement.

But Watson responded by saying his bill was being improperly used as a political tool by conservative statewide leaders — such as Perry, who has been a fervent opponent of the law known commonly as Obamacare.

The purpose of the bill was for consumer protection, not for “needless bureaucratic regulation” that could end up reducing the number of people who can get access to the marketplace where they can buy affordable health insurance, the senator said.

“It appears that arbitrary requirements are put into place,” he told the American-Statesman. “Is that about consumer protection or is it about winning a political fight?”

Watson noted that the governor didn’t get everything he wanted, specifically a requirement that the state collect data about those who signed up for policies on the marketplace and a limitation on the hours navigators can work in a day.

After the Texas Department of Insurance’s announcement, Perry’s spokesman Josh Havens said the governor’s office is confident that the proposed rules will help provide proper safeguards.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is in a contentious primary to keep his job, said in a statement: “Considering the litany of failures and excuses that accompanied the launch of the website, we must be on guard against the continuing missteps of the Obama administration.”

Federal grants to pay for navigators in Texas went mostly to the northern part of the state, and only a few navigators are working in Central Texas.

Filling the void are dozens of certified application counselors, who do the same job as navigators but without federal funding. They wouldn’t be affected by the rules, but regulations could be created later to include the counselors.

Elizabeth Colvin, director of Insure Central Texas at Foundation Communities, said her certified application counselors will comply with any new regulations.

At the nonprofit’s Highland Mall location, Bau Nguyen, 66, sat Tuesday with his wife, Anh, 55, signing up for a plan for her and their 24-year-old son.

“The program will help a lot,” a confident Bau Nguyen said.

It took two visits and a couple of hours at a computer terminal with an application counselor, but the Nguyens ultimately bought a plan.

Several other people joined the Nguyens at the Highland Mall storefront to sign up for insurance. Colvin said she has seen steady improvement with

Colvin said all of the group’s offices had seen an uptick in the number of people seeking help since Sunday, when the Obama administration said the website was working better.

“It has been gradually improving every single day,” she said.

The federal government hasn’t given a recent update on the number of people in Texas who have signed up for insurance through the website.

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