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Strange Bedfellows Among Groups Helping Insurance Buyers

If you thought the doldrums of August meant a lower boil for controversy over the rollout of the federal health law, you're mostly right.

But the federal government released a list of grants going to groups that will help people figure out how to buy health insurance on the marketplaces, or exchanges, that open for business in October. Some of the names incensed commenters over at Forbes.com, where Bruce Japsen wrote about the grants.

It's not a lot of money — $67 million all told — spread among more than 100 different groups that have stepped up to help people navigate the new health insurance options, which are kind of complicated.

What's the idea? "A network of volunteers on the ground in every state — health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates, and local elected officials — can help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement describing the money for these insurance navigators.

The grants range from nearly $5.9 million going to United Way of Tarrant County in Texas to $21,750 for the social services arm of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala.

Starting next year, most Americans will have to show they've got health insurance. If they don't have coverage already, they'll have to buy it — or pay a penalty. There are subsidies to help those who qualify.

But a surprising number of people don't know the first thing about insurance, as a recent study found. And these exchanges could be a challenge even for people who understand the basics.

So helpers only make sense, right? Well, not to everyone. "Critics see navigators as potential competitors to insurance brokers, and say they should be subject to more rigorous screening before they can work with consumers," Kaiser Health News' Phil Galewitz wrote. In Nebraska, insurance brokers pushed for a state law, signed by the governor in June, that regulates navigators and prohibits them from endorsing particular plans.

So who's getting some of the money? Some groups you might not have expected.

The Fishing Partnership Health Plan of Massachusetts got nearly $67,000 to work with the Maine Lobstermen's Association to help uninsured commercial fishermen in Maine figure things out.

Another recipient is Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, a nonprofit operating in Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. A $214,000 grant will support navigators in Iowa.

Then there's Ascension Health, a Catholic hospital chain operating in 22 states. Ascension will get about $203,000 for navigators in Alabama, plus about $166,000 in Kansas.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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