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States eye more oversight of health insurance exchange workers, but no reports of complaints

DOVER, Del. - Republican lawmakers around the country are adding criminal background checks or licensing requirements for workers hired to help people enrol in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, taking aim at perceived security risks involving customers' personal information.

More than a dozen GOP-controlled states have passed legislation tightening requirements for the enrolmentcounsellors, and bills in other states are pending. While the federal government does not require criminal background checks for navigators, states can set their own rules.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last month signed a bill requiring licensing and background checks for navigators who help people buy health insurance on the federal marketplace. Republican proponents said the requirements will help protect consumers from identity theft. Louisiana's legislature unanimously approved a similar measure with a Senate vote Tuesday.

Still, there's no sign that enrolment guides, even those with criminal records, have misused consumers' personal information in any state.

"I have no idea what's motivating them, but I have seen efforts over the past few years to make Obamacare fall apart, and this may be part of that," said Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist who has written about hiring ex-offenders.

Blumstein said that requiring background checks is reasonable, but cautioned that there should be no blanket prohibition against hiring people with criminal records.

"To the extent that an individual got into a barroom brawl and was convicted of assault, that may likely not be a candidate for doing identity theft," he said.

While states continue to eye tighter restrictions, a federal judge has halted enactment of a Missouri law that required health care guides to be licensed by the state. District Judge Ortrie Smith said it "constitutes an impermissible obstacle" to the federal law and was thus pre-empted. Missouri officials are appealing that ruling.

Even in states that require background checks, a criminal record often is not an automatic disqualifier.

Meanwhile, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch is suing to force the Obama administration to release records regarding the awarding of navigator contracts. The group also is seeking records related to federal requirements for navigators.

Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said Americans have a right to know what systems are in place to protect their health care information from being misused.

"Our concerns are the lack of transparency," said Fitton, who believes the current process for choosing navigator entities involves "old-fashioned patronage and cronyism."

"I think the states need to put at least some system of background checks in place for navigators," he added.

Delaware, California and Nevada — all with Democrat-controlled legislatures — are among states taking a case-by-case approach to applicants with criminal records, in contrast to measures in some of the GOP-controlled states, such as Texas and Louisiana, that allow the denial of a navigator license to anyone convicted of a felony.

Republican lawmakers in California recently introduced legislation prohibiting people with certain felonies from working as enrolment assistants after learning that 31 people with criminal records were previously approved. The legislation failed in committee.

The California attorney general's office says it has not received any complaints of enrolment assistants misusing personal information. California exchange officials have defended their background check system, saying the 31 workers were rehabilitated.

Similarly, Nevada regulators say eight enrolment assisters in that state who have criminal records were thoroughly vetted.

"We know how much personal information is on the line," said Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for Nevada's Division of Insurance, adding that there have been no complaints about enrolment assistants.

In Delaware, records obtained by The Associated Press show that some enrolment assistants have criminal records. Others have been sued, sometimes repeatedly, for unpaid debts and taxes.

A committee established to consider Delaware applicants with criminal records has reviewed about 15 cases. The panel did not recommend that any applicant be denied certification, including a person whose criminal past prompted one official to express concerns about the "violent nature" of the charges. The committee did conclude that one person, who had no convictions but at least nine arrests, including one involving a weapon, had a history of anger problems and was "a loose cannon" whose candidacy should be terminated. But officials said the person was withdrawn from the program by the contracting "marketplace guide" agency before a final decision was rendered.

"I think what Delaware's done seems to be the right thing," said Susan Gauvey, a federal magistrate judge in Baltimore who is a proponent of affording job opportunities for ex-offenders. "You don't automatically exclude someone, but you look to see if there's a good and proper fit."

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Associated Press Writers Judy Lin in California, Carla K. Johnson in Illinois, Melinda Deslatte in Louisiana and David Lieb in Missouri contributed to this report.

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