Amid ongoing political debate about implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the ability of average Americans to understand the complexities of the health reform law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on July 12, 2013 released a final rule that sets forth requirements for different types of entities and individuals who will aide consumers in learning about and enrolling in health coverage plans on insurance marketplaces created by the law, called exchanges.

The rule distinguishes between three categories of consumer helpers: “navigators,” “non-navigator assistance personnel,” and “certified application counselors.” All three types, which may include community nonprofit organizations and their staffs, and other entities and individuals, will perform similar functions, such as helping consumers establish their eligibility for coverage on an exchange and enrolling them where eligible. The primary differences lie in how they are funded and in the exchanges in which they will provide assistance. Navigators will provide assistance in all exchanges—federal exchanges, state exchanges, and federal-state partnership exchanges—and will be funded by federal and state grants. Non-navigator assistance personnel will provide assistance in federal-state partnership exchanges and optionally in state exchanges, and will be funded through separate state-administered grants or contracts. Certified application counselors will provide assistance in all exchanges and will not receive exchange-related funds (although they may receive funds from other federal programs).

The rule lays out standards with which navigators and non-navigator assistance personnel must comply. These standards include conflict-of-interest standards that limit affiliations with insurance companies and standards governing certification, recertification, and training in particular subjects. The rule establishes additional standards to ensure that the services of navigators and non-navigator assistance personnel are culturally and linguistically appropriate and also accessible to the disabled. 

As to certified application counselors, the rule authorizes exchanges to designate an organization to certify its staff members or volunteers as application counselors, or to directly certify these individuals, who in both cases must comply with certification standards similar to those applicable to navigators and non-navigator assistance personnel. Correspondingly, the rule requires withdrawal of an organization’s designation or a counselor’s certification in the event of noncompliance with the rule. Finally, the rule requires that certain information about certified application counselors be available to health coverage applicants, and it prohibits the imposition of any charge on applicants for application or other exchange-related assistance.

The rule takes effect on August 12, 2013.