Asbury Park Press

N.J. To Forfeit $7.6M In U.S. Health Care Aid

Asbury Park Press — Friday, February 21, 2014

Written by
Michael L. Diamond

New Jersey was on the verge Thursday night of losing a $7.6 million grant after it couldn't agree with the federal government on a plan to promote Obamacare.

The deadline to spend the money came — and went — after a last-minute letter from the Christie administration asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for permission to use the money on programs such as NJ FamilyCare and provide insurance advice to patients with chronic infectious diseases.

"New Jersey consistently has sought the flexibility to use this grant to meet the unique needs of our residents and we have been advised repeatedly that the permissible uses for this grant are limited," Kenneth E. Kobylowski, commissioner of the Department of Banking and Insurance, wrote.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant was designed to help states promote the Affordable Care Act. The department expanded what it deemed acceptable beyond just an advertising campaign. But it noted last May that states using the federal website could not use the money for Medicaid programs such as NJ FamilyCare.

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has been sharply critical of the law, which has deeply divided Republicans and Democrats. He expanded Medicaid to provide health coverage to more low-income residents. But New Jersey is one of 36 states that didn't create a state-run insurance exchange, opting instead to use the federal government's site.

The law is trying to cover 47 million Americans without insurance, including 900,000 in New Jersey. Through January, about 160,000 New Jerseyans had signed up for health insurance through the exchange or NJ FamilyCare.

New Jersey needed to have a plan approved by HHS by the end of the business day Thursday or it would forfeit the money.

"We have reached out to the state numerous times over the last few months in order to avoid a last minute scramble, but unfortunately the state has yet to send us a request to re-scope their grant for any allowable activities," HHS spokesperson Fabien Levy said in a statement. "We are committed to working with New Jersey to support their efforts to successfully implement their marketplace."

In the letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Kobylowski said the state wanted to use at least part of the grant to hire as many as 25 employees for NJ FamilyCare's call center to handle what he said was a significant influx of applications. It could have used money from Medicaid itself, but he said the federal health program requires states to match some of the funding, and New Jersey faced budget constraints.

Consumer advocates said the proposal was disingenuous since the administration has long known that its plan wouldn't meet the HHS' qualifications.

"Consumer outreach and education (about) the marketplace needs to be done, and this state is refusing not only to do it, but even to mention the marketplace through any agency or any initiative," said Maura Collinsgru, health advocate for New Jersey Citizen Action. "The state is in a position that groups here on the ground are not."

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