Company chosen to replace first Obamacare navigator on Missouri side of state line faces criticism

A Maryland company that has reaped millions of dollars in federal health-reform grants for work around the country is drawing fire for its performance in the Kansas City area.

Critics say that Advanced Patient Advocacy, a privately held company, has been slow off the mark in its role as a “navigator” organization, charged with helping consumers find coverage through the health insurance marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act.

Critics also question whether the company, which houses its local staff in for-profit hospitals owned by HCA, is fulfilling its obligation under a nearly $400,000 grant to conduct outreach and education activities in the community.

Local health-reform advocates are unsure why the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chose Advanced Patient Advocacy for Missouri-side work when last year’s navigator seemed to be doing a good job — and when some people in the area were unhappy with previous navigation work done locally by Advanced Patient Advocacy.

“For $400,000, what are we getting for our tax dollars? I would like the answer to that question,” says Elizabeth Darr, a retired obstetrics and gynecology physician who has been active helping people sign up for health coverage.

Advanced Patient Advocacy officials say the company’s slow start this year was due in part to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services releasing funds only in October. It says it’s now busy making up lost ground.

The company also says its use of hospital facilities, and ties to those institutions, allows it to stretch grant dollars to help more people.

The switch to Advanced Patient Advocacy to serve the Missouri side of the metro area this year baffled some members of the local marketplace enrollment network, who meet regularly through the bi-state Regional Health Care Initiative. The initiative is headed by Scott Lakin, a former Missouri insurance commissioner.

Lakin says some members of the marketplace committee gave low marks to Advanced Patient Advocacy for its enrollment efforts in Kansas last year. Lakin also says he was disappointed that company representatives did not attend meetings of the marketplace committee last year or at the start of this enrollment period — though he is encouraged by the company’s recent participation.

The company replaced Shepherd’s Center Central, a nonprofit based in Kansas City that provides Medicare counseling and other services in the metropolitan area to middle-aged and older adults.

Shepherd’s Center was part of a statewide consortium established by Primaris, a health care consulting firm based in Columbia, Mo., which received a $1.1 million navigation grant for the first open enrollment period.

The enrollment community gave high marks to Shepherd’s Center for the cadre of committed workers it put together to serve as navigators during the first enrollment period.

Primaris officials, too, said they were disappointed at not getting their grant renewed and were proud of their accomplishments in the first year, especially given the early challenges they faced when the federal enrollment website was plagued with technical problems.

The consortium enrolled about 1,500 people in marketplace plans, says Robin Corderman, a consumer assistance program manager with Primaris and one of its affiliates. In all, she says, the consortium made contact with nearly 40,000 consumers.

Corderman says Primaris has tried for months to get feedback on its grant application, with its initial inquiry coming the day the agency announced the second round of grants.

“We have received nothing,” she says.

In response to questions submitted by Heartland Health Monitor about Advanced Patient Advocacy’s selection, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were willing to provide only background information about the bidding process.

The agency said by email that an objective review panel scored grant applications, in part based on applicants’ prior performance.

It said it was aware of concerns raised about Advanced Patient Advocacy’s performance thus far in Missouri and was working with the company to iron out issues. It said it would continue to monitor the situation.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, is also keeping tabs on the situation, according to a statement from his office.

“Congressman Cleaver is focused on ensuring that all of his constituents have good access” to good health care, and “he has heard from some individuals concerned about our region, and he is monitoring the situation closely,” the statement said.

As of October, a year after the start of the first open enrollment period, 7.1 million people nationwide had enrolled in marketplace plans, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Of that number, 57,000 Kansans and 152,335 Missourians signed up for a marketplace plan.

So far, 6.5 million consumers have selected a plan or were automatically re-enrolled in the first five weeks of the current open enrollment period, which runs from Nov. 15 through Feb. 15. That figure does not include numbers from state-operated exchanges.

Navigators are part of an extensive consumer-assistance network established under the health law to help consumers — many of them getting health insurance for the first time — understand their options in the health insurance marketplace. On Sept. 8, HHS announced it was awarding $60 million in navigator grants to organizations around the country for the 2014-2015 enrollment period.

Advanced Patient Advocacy received a total of $1.7 million in grants to act as a navigator in four states: Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In the previous enrollment period, it was awarded $1.4 million to provide navigation services in four other states: Florida, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia.

The chief executive of Advanced Patient Advocacy, Kevin Groner, once served in the Peace Corps. The company’s chief marketing officer, Rodney Napier, says Groner founded the company in 2000 with that same purpose of serving others.

Through contracts with about 100 hospitals around the country, Napier says, the company works with uninsured patients to see whether they were eligible for coverage through any number of approaches, including Medicaid or even car insurance if the hospital visit was related to an automobile accident.

Napier says company officials view the navigator program as a natural extension of that service.

Although the company knew of its award in September, it did not have its full contingent of four local navigators in place until six weeks after the start of open enrollment.

Napier explained that Advanced Patient Advocacy did not have access to salary funds until the end of October.

“We made up that ground as quickly as we possibly could,” he said.

Napier also said the company fulfilled its outreach and education obligations by participating in events such as community health fairs. It focuses a lot of its activities on hospitals, however, because he says that’s where people can talk confidentially about their health care needs.

Napier notes that the company’s existing relationships with hospitals also allowed it to stretch its federal grant farther through the use of in-kind hospital services such as meeting rooms and copying machines.

Some local critics are wary of those relationships, saying Advanced Patient Advocacy’s participation as a navigator amounted to a private company using federal dollars to pad the bottom line of hospitals by ensuring that more of their patients have a payer source.

Napier counters that Advanced Patient Advocacy keeps a strict firewall between staff working on traditional services and the people it hires as navigators. He says its hospital customers want it that way and, in any case, it’s an accounting requirement of the federal grant.

“Our heart is in the right place — it’s what we have been doing for 14 years, it’s what our company has been founded on,” he said. “That is what we wake up every day doing, with or without a navigator program.”

Mike Sherry is a reporter for KCPT television in Kansas City, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.