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Feds cut program in Orlando, other cities that helps consumers sign up for Obamacare

he Trump administration is cutting federal contracts that help Central Florida residents enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — a move advocates decried Thursday as a further attempt to sabotage the existing law.

In addition to Orlando, the contracts provided for in-person assistance during the open-enrollment period for the ACA — or Obamacare — in Tampa, Miami and 15 other cities across the country. The Orlando program has brought at least 19 “assisters” to libraries, shopping centers and other urban locations to help people enroll, re-enroll or shop for a new policy.

Those contracts were expected to be renewed for the 2017 enrollment period but instead will expire Aug. 29.

Scott Darius, executive director of the consumer group Florida Voices for Health, called the move part of a larger effort to “dismantle” Obamacare without a vote of Congress, which has been unable to agree on a replacement.

The most disappointing thing is that this will restrict access to care,” Darius said. “After years of open enrollments, we know it’s important to help people navigate this process, and now that’s being sacrificed to score political points. At the end of the day, fewer people will be able to sign up, and the conversation will be, ‘Look, Obamacare is failing.’ ”

But a spokesperson for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which awarded the contracts, countered that there are other programs to help with navigation and that the cuts only affect a program that was never intended to be long-term.

“CMS has a robust assistance program in place to help consumers with enrollment, including in-person assistance,” the agency said in a written statement. “In addition, CMS operates a year-round exchange call center to assist consumers by phone with all of their enrollment needs.”

The contracts, part of the government’s Enrollment Assistance Program, were made with two Virgina-based companies, Cognosante LLC and CSRA Inc. In addition, there are contracts for year-round health-insurance exchange navigators that are still in place at the moment.

The latest move comes as the Trump administration has cut the enrollment period in half — from three months to six weeks, Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. There are also reports this week that the administration has used taxpayer money that was originally intended to encourage enrollment in Obamacare to instead produce video testimonials of people who claim to have been harmed by it.

“There’s a clear pattern of the administration trying to undermine and sabotage the Affordable Care Act,” said Elizabeth Hagan, associate director of coverage initiatives for the liberal advocacy group Families USA. “It’s not letting the law fail; it’s making the law fail.”

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Anne Packham, project director for the Marketplace Navigators for Central Florida, part of a federal contract with the University of South Florida, said her team’s work is ongoing. But the loss of the Enrollment Assistance Program, she said, will have a “huge impact” on consumers trying to sign up.

“Without a ginormous increase in our funding — which we’re not expecting — the people who would have turned to them for help will be looking for navigators,” she said. “We of course will do our best to serve as many people as we can, but we only have half the time to be able to do it, so it’s just going to be harder for people to get free, unbiased in-person help with this critical decision.”

People who shop for insurance through the government website, she said, tend to look only at the price — and discover later that the policy doesn’t cover what they thought it would.

“You have to be savvy to do this on your own,” Packham said. “We make sure all these other considerations are covered. I think people have a very poor understanding of how the subsidies really work and how it affects their taxes and all that. It really is complicated.”

This story includes information from the Associated Press. or 407-420-5503. Follow @katesantich on Twitter.

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