By Tom Brown

MIAMI, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Florida was strongly criticized by the federal government on Thursday for barring outreach workers, known as "navigators," from county health departments when they start enrolling people next month for insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.

"This is another blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate groups who will be working to inform Americans about their new health insurance options and help them enroll in coverage," said U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesman Fabien Levy.

He was referring to a directive from the Florida Department of Health, issued to local health department directors across the state earlier this week. "Navigators will not conduct activities on the grounds of the health departments," it said.

The directive comes against the backdrop of an aggressive effort by Florida Governor Rick Scott and other Republican leaders in the state to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which is popularly known as Obamacare.

Republicans say the healthcare law will hurt job creation, while supporters view it as a landmark initiative that will extend health insurance coverage to millions of Americans.

The enrollment stakes are huge in Florida, where the U.S. Census Bureau says there are about 3.8 million people without health insurance. That amounts to roughly a quarter of Florida's population, giving it the third-highest rate in the country.

In a statement clarifying the navigators directive on Wednesday, the state health department said the counselors trained to help people sign up for health insurance have been barred, at least in part, in the interest of consumer protection.

"This (Navigator) program has raised privacy concerns due to the consumer information that will be gathered for use in a federal database," the statement said.

Similar concerns have been raised by Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, amid allegations that navigators might steal personal information, but they have been rejected out of hand by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, said hampering the work of navigators was a "plain absurdity" in a harshly worded letter she fired off to Scott on Thursday.

"The continued obstruction by you and many state leaders of the Affordable Care Act is contrary to the best interests of the citizens and businesses of Florida," Castor said.

"To deny access to Navigators to health departments is another obstructionist measure that elevates ideology over the interests of Floridians who simply need to see a doctor or nurse and take personal responsibility through enrolling in affordable insurance," she said.

U.S. Health and Human Services Department officials say the Florida restrictions will not impede the program. "Despite the state's attempts, we are confident that Navigators will still be able to help Floridians enroll in quality, affordable health coverage when open enrollment begins on October 1," Levy said. (Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • 1912

    Former President Theodore Roosevelt champions national health insurance as he unsuccessfully tries to ride his progressive Bull Moose Party back to the White House. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

  • 1935

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt favors creating national health insurance amid the Great Depression but decides to push for Social Security first. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1942

    Roosevelt establishes wage and price controls during World War II. Businesses can't attract workers with higher pay so they compete through added benefits, including health insurance, which grows into a workplace perk. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • 1945

    President Harry Truman calls on Congress to create a national insurance program for those who pay voluntary fees. The American Medical Association denounces the idea as "socialized medicine" and it goes nowhere. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1960

    John F. Kennedy makes health care a major campaign issue but as president can't get a plan for the elderly through Congress. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1965

    President Lyndon B. Johnson's legendary arm-twisting and a Congress dominated by his fellow Democrats lead to creation of two landmark government health programs: Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1974

    President Richard Nixon wants to require employers to cover their workers and create federal subsidies to help everyone else buy private insurance. The Watergate scandal intervenes. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1976

    President Jimmy Carter pushes a mandatory national health plan, but economic recession helps push it aside. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

  • 1986

    President Ronald Reagan signs COBRA, a requirement that employers let former workers stay on the company health plan for 18 months after leaving a job, with workers bearing the cost. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1988

    Congress expands Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit and catastrophic care coverage. It doesn't last long. Barraged by protests from older Americans upset about paying a tax to finance the additional coverage, Congress repeals the law the next year. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1993

    President Bill Clinton puts first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of developing what becomes a 1,300-page plan for universal coverage. It requires businesses to cover their workers and mandates that everyone have health insurance. The plan meets Republican opposition, divides Democrats and comes under a firestorm of lobbying from businesses and the health care industry. It dies in the Senate. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1997

    Clinton signs bipartisan legislation creating a state-federal program to provide coverage for millions of children in families of modest means whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid. (JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2003

    President George W. Bush persuades Congress to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare in a major expansion of the program for older people. (STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2008

    Hillary Rodham Clinton promotes a sweeping health care plan in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She loses to Obama, who has a less comprehensive plan. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2009

    President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress spend an intense year ironing out legislation to require most companies to cover their workers; mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a fine; require insurance companies to accept all comers, regardless of any pre-existing conditions; and assist people who can't afford insurance. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    With no Republican support, Congress passes the measure, designed to extend health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people. Republican opponents scorned the law as "Obamacare." (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

  • 2012

    On a campaign tour in the Midwest, Obama himself embraces the term "Obamacare" and says the law shows "I do care." (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)