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Buyers, beware of Obamacare wannabes

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“Obamacare Enrollment Center,’’ announced the banner hanging from the pulpit. It even bore the “O” logo from President Obama’s campaign.

But the self-proclaimed “Obamacare Enrollment Team’’ that rolled into Florida’s capital this week has no official connection with the president or his signature health law. It is a front for a Stuart-based insurance agency now accused of trying to dupe consumers into buying health insurance, our partners at the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau report.  

Affordable Care Act advocates long have worried about unofficial sales efforts, and with the law’s continued technical problems, frustrated consumers may be increasingly vulnerable to promises of easier access to the system.

Dealing with an unofficial pitch carries at least two problems: First, you could be scammed entirely. Secondly, even if you buy a legitimate insurance policy, you might lose out on tax subsidies offered under the health care law. The only way lower- and middle-income consumers can get a subsidy is through official channels. 

“Obamacare Enrollment Team’’ is the brand used by the Fiorella Insurance Agency to market policies during the health care rollout, especially to minorities in urban areas. The group solicits through a network of websites, none of which disclosed ties to the Stuart insurance agency until after reporters started poking around.

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office received a complaint from a woman who said she worked for Illinois’ official health insurance marketplace and became concerned after watching the Obamacare Enrollment Team in action at a Chicago job fair earlier this month. It also has held events in Detroit.

“The website is trying to collect (Social Security numbers),” the complaint said. 

About 20 people, all of them African-American and many of them elderly, attended the Obamacare Enrollment Team’s forum in Tallahassee. They all were encouraged to provide their names, addresses, signatures — and Social Security numbers. 

It wasn’t until reporters at the meeting began asking questions that the two presenters  —  Lakeland pastor H.B. Holmes and self-described “lobbyist” Katrina Copeland — admitted they were affiliated with the Fiorella agency.

“I don’t have to be licensed because I am a registered lobbyist with the Senate and the House so I don’t have to have a navigator’s license,” Copeland declared when asked whether she was a navigator.

But though she has submitted paperwork in the U.S. Capitol, she is not an active lobbyist. And even if she were, lobbyists don’t receive the training, background checks and certifications that official health care navigator must have. Copeland’s presentation suggested she doesn’t understand the law.

“The same individuals who have Medicaid could then go under the Affordable Care Act and get private insurance, and then that Medicaid will go back to the states,” she told the crowd.

But that’s not true. Private insurance is for people who cannot qualify for Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor. And further, the seniors in the crowd should have been told that Obamacare is not for them — Medicare, the program for seniors and the disabled, has nothing to do with the health insurance marketplace.

After media reports of the team's tactics, the agency has reportedly changed its website to say it isn’t tied to the federal government and no longer asks for Social Security numbers.

Floridians are hungry for information about the health law and for healthcare coverage, making them easy targets for scams. Qualified help is there. Check out this list of official navigators and assisters in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, complete with phone numbers and addresses. 

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