NASHVILLE—(ENEWSPF)—October 7, 2013. Two women who have long served the public in their respective roles as a librarian and a homecare aide are the lead plaintiffs in a suit filed today (Oct. 4) in federal court here that challenges Tennessee’s restrictive emergency rules regulating “navigator” activities, which were put in place without public comment two weeks before the October 1opening of the online healthcare “marketplace” under the Affordable Care Act. These and other harsh restrictions on navigators are in place in at least 10 states.
“Tennesseans should be free to help friends, neighbors and others in our community look at their new healthcare options without fear of a $1,000 fine,” said Exie Mai Harrington, a circulation assistant at the Nashville Public Library who is the lead plaintiff in the suit and a member of SEIU Local 205.
The new state requirements put at risk friends, family members, caregivers, church volunteers and many others who might provide friends and neighbors with information – even informally – about the new, lower-cost health insurance options now available on new federal and state health marketplaces.
“I have been helping my clients for years access the healthcare they need, I shouldn’t have to be worried about big fines from the state for doing my job,” says Trumeko Foxx, a home care provider for Metro Social Services who is another plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Recent polls show the vast majority of Americans do not understand the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and many states have encouraged librarians, educators, doctors and nurses to share the facts about the new marketplaces to increase knowledge of the law. Tennessee’s emergency legislation does the exact opposite.
The lawsuit maintains that Tennessee has set up an overly broad definition of the term “navigator” – which is a term of art under the law that refers to individuals and organizations that have received government grants to assist in enrollment for healthcare coverage – by applying it to anyone who takes part in or facilitates public education about the new marketplaces or the insurance plans available.
Current state rules require that navigators get fingerprinted, complete a criminal background check, register with a state agency, and limit the kind of assistance they provide to consumers. If a person provides consumer assistance without satisfying these requirements, state officials can fine them up to $1,000 for each violation.
Lead plaintiff Harrington frequently assists library visitors who need help accessing the internet and locating information on various websites but if she says the wrong thing or stays at a person’s side too long while they are online signing up for health insurance she could face that $1,000 fine under the state’s restrictive new rules.
“Our staff already has very specific rules about what we can and can’t do to help the public access state or federal programs,” Harrington says. “These new rules from the state are unnecessary and it isn’t fair to put librarians or anyone else at risk for helping people find a website for a legitimate resource.”
The lawsuit alleges that the current law:
violates federal and state constitutional right to free speech because it curtails First Amendment rights due to the threat of being subjected to considerable fines and penalties;
is not valid because friends, neighbors or healthcare workers are not “navigators” as defined by the Affordable Care Act; and
would prevent people like nurses, doctors and homecare workers like the plaintiff, from assisting people with disabilities without undergoing the state’s onerous registration process, and therefore violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
SEIU Local 205 President Doug Collier said he is concerned about the “chilling effect” the current legislation is having on community leaders, healthcare providers and public servants many Tennesseans rely on for sound and trusted advice.
“These political games make for good theater in Washington D.C., but here in Tennessee, we are talking about people’s lives,” he said. “People are fed up with the political stunts over the healthcare law. It is the law of the land and state government needs to get out of the way and allow uninsured Tennesseans to get the information they need to make informed choices about their families’ health and well-being.”