A California group with a history of making political contributions to Illinois politicians and connections to the Obama administration was awarded a federal “navigator” grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, to help Illinoisans enroll in the Obamacare health insurance exchange.
The East Los Angeles Community Union, or TELACU, was awarded a grant of $294,182. They were one of only 11 groups to win federal navigator grants earmarked for Illinois.
“Navigator” is one of a number of titles for those certified to guide the uninsured into Obamacare’s insurance exchanges. Other titles include “in-person counselors” and “assisters,” depending on where the funds for the positions came from.
Why so many programs have found separate funding to achieve the same goals reveals one of Obamacare’s consequences: political patronage.
“There are so many instances where the health care law is being used to grant political favors,” said Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute—a nonprofit health research organization. “People just line up to get their share of it. As long as the money is sitting out there, it is going to be used by politicians to pick winners and losers.”
The state of Illinois already awarded $27 million for organizations to hire ‘in-person counselors.’ Thirty-one organizations applied citing Hispanic outreach as one of their goals. Only some of them received grants.
For its own grant, TELACU claimed to have spent more than 40 years “improving the lives of individuals and families throughout East Los Angeles,” and promised to “use Navigator funds in target markets in Illinois, paying special attention to the Hispanic community due to the high density of uninsured Hispanic residents in the state.”
But health insurance education is only one of the spheres TELACU operates in East Los Angeles.
“TELACU Industries (TI) owns and operates a family of companies in four key business sectors – Real Estate Development, Financial Services, Construction and Construction Management,” according to the TELACU website.
The founders of TELACU have reached national prominence. TELACU/Millenium CEO and President David C Lizárraga was also board chairman for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and in February 2012 was appointed by the Obama administration to the Community Development Advisory Board.
So why is a California community development corporation so interested in Illinois?
“TELACU may be based in Los Angeles, but we are an organization that is not isolated by geography,” said Naomi Gamez, Outreach and Education Coordinator for TELACU.
“We submitted navigator proposals as a consortium for the states of Illinois, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, Florida and New Jersey,” she added. “Our Illinois submission was the only one that was awarded to the consortium.”
But TELACU has demonstrated an interest in Illinois, and Illinois state politics, for quite some time.
According to the Illinois Board of Elections, TELACU Industries Inc. contributed $20,750 from 2003 to 2007 to various Illinois political entities. Of that amount, $11,500 went to the “25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization” located in Chicago, $7,500 went to “Citizens for Munoz,” $1,000 went to “friends of Rod Blagojevich” and $750 went to “Citizens for Edward Acevedo.”
In 2012 TELACU Industries spent $28,500 lobbying and contributed $40,250 to various candidates, according to OPENSECRETS.ORG.
“I’m not terribly surprised,” said state Sen. Kyle McCarter R-Lebanon. “We’ve got a culture of corruption in this state and it didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. With the economy in Illinois as weak as it is, however, we should make every effort to direct grants to Illinois organizations. Especially when it comes to education, where our own organizations can communicate better with citizens here.”
Now, more than two weeks after the exchanges opened, TELACU claims they are waiting for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Grants Management for direction.
“Due to the government shutdown, we are currently on hold until we receive final determination from CMS,” Gamez said. “Several Chicago based grassroots organizations are ready to mobilize.”
TELACU would not supply the names of those organizations to Illinois News Network, nor did TELACU confirm a physical address in Illinois or whether they had hired any navigators themselves.
In Illinois, navigators are required to carry state certification issued by the Illinois Department of Insurance. TELACU is not registered in the Certified Navigator Look-Up Informational Data Base, nor could they be found by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners help desk when INN tried to find the group’s registration.
Although TELACU has so far failed to do anything in Illinois, some state grant recipients in Chicago have already been busy.
“We have reached out to the Salvadoran, Honduran and Mexican consulates, community services and schools,” said Andrea Ramos, one of two in-person counselors for Centro Romero, a community-based organization on the northeast side of Chicago. Centro Romero received one of the state grants awarded for outreach in Illinois. “We also have lots of people who walk in, asking about Obamacare here.”
Others contend that Obamacare is vulnerable to grant-writing gamesmanship.
“Government needs to stop handing out these grants entirely,” said Michael Cannon, Director of Health Studies at the Cato Institute. “It is a charming idea that grants would be given away on the basis of merit, but they end up being distributed according to politics or to those who can navigate the federal grant writing process.”