State-based rules enacted to regulate who can help the uninsured sign up for health plans under the Affordable Care Act in Tennessee could have a chilling effect on free speech, a U.S. District Court judge in Nashville has ruled.
Judge Todd Campbell issued a 14-day restraining order Monday on regulations governing Obamacare activists, or “navigators,” trying to enroll Tennesseans in federally run health care exchanges.
The rules define who a navigator is, require them to submit to criminal background checks before they are allowed to offer any assistance and clarify navigators are not allowed to sell health insurance.
The legislation giving rise to the regulations passed last spring, with only one member of the Tennessee General Assembly, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, voting in opposition.
Judge Campbell, a Clinton administration nominee who worked for Al Gore’s presidential campaign committee in the 1980s, declared that the language defining a navigator is too broad and could inadvertently snare and inappropriately penalize librarians, union organizers, churches and others just seeking to help people sign up for government-subsidized health insurance.
Under the state regulations, navigator rule-breakers face a $1,000 fine per violation.
The federal lawsuit was filed by Service Employees International Union Local 205, which feared members could be targeted for helping others sign up over the Internet.
“These ‘emergency rules’ were never about protecting people from fraud, this was a political game by the governor and his allies,” Doug Collier, the union’s president, said following Judge Campbell’s ruling. “We believe it is every American’s right to have access to affordable health care and we are not going to let him play political games with people’s lives.”
The issue was also challenged last week in Davidson County Chancery Court by the Tennessee Justice Center, League of Women Voters and others. That suit also asked that a temporary restraining order be issued because the rules may limit navigators rights to free speech and because a navigator is broadly defined as “individuals and entities that facilitate enrollment in exchanges.”
But, unlike in the federal court, Chancellor Russell T. Perkins said the rules will probably not affect the exchanges or violate anyone’s First Amendment rights, as argued by the plaintiffs. Even so, the state afterward agreed to narrow the definition of “navigator” to only include those formally registered as such or certified application counselors.
In response to the TJC suit, state Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak said the intent of the emergency rules are meant to protect the state’s citizens.
“Our focus is on protecting Tennesseans and taking reasonable and responsible steps to provide consumer safeguards,” she said, adding navigators will have access to individual’s personal financial and medical information.
“These rules are those reasonable and responsible steps,” she said.
Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, also defended the law, citing the strong bipartisan support it garnered in the General Assembly.
Noting that support for the legislation giving rise to the new rules was overwhelming, Haslam said the proposed regulations “are not intended to be a stumbling block.”