Updated January 30 at 7:30pm

Ferguson: Exchange can benefit small business

By Natalie Villacorta
Contributing Writer
Christine Ferguson is so enthusiastic about the state’s new health-benefits exchange that she mistook a summit on its offerings co-sponsored by Providence Business News for a wedding. But it wouldn’t be surprising to find Ferguson, HealthSourceRI’s executive director, at a wedding explaining the exchange and asking for business cards. More

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HEALTH CARE

Ferguson: Exchange can benefit small business

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Christine Ferguson is so enthusiastic about the state’s new health-benefits exchange that she mistook a summit on its offerings co-sponsored by Providence Business News for a wedding. But it wouldn’t be surprising to find Ferguson, HealthSourceRI’s executive director, at a wedding explaining the exchange and asking for business cards.

She says she will go anywhere she needs to in order to make the exchange a success. She even offered to be a guest preacher at a Presbyterian church. Recently she wandered out of a beauty shop with foil still in her hair. She left to grab the exchange-rates sheet so she could explain the system to her hairdresser.

At the Sept. 25 summit at the Crowne Plaza Providence-Warwick attended by 400 business owners, human resources professionals, insurance brokers and others, Ferguson said Rhode Island is one of only three or four states expected to be up and running by Oct. 1, when state exchanges were scheduled to open. Ferguson’s responses as part of a panel discussion formed the core of the two-and-a-half hour summit, produced by PBN in partnership with HealthSource-RI and a number of other sponsors. But the single most important aspect about Rhode Island’s exchange is that it is the only one with a primary focus on small business, Ferguson said. Rhode Island is the only state implementing the full employee-choice model, whereby employers select a reference plan and set a contribution amount, which employees can apply toward any of the 16 small-business plans sold on the exchange.

“This is a critically different thing than any other state in the country is doing,” Ferguson said. “At the end of the day, we need to get at the issue of reducing costs. And the only way we can get to that place is at a point in time where individuals can actually influence the cost of health care.”

“If we do this well every single person in Rhode Island will understand that the choice they make … has the potential of reducing cost,” she said.

So will costs go down? Not in the short-term, the panelists agreed. Some individuals may see lower costs, particularly those who are eligible for federal subsidies. But there will also be losers, including young people who will have to pay more.

But in the long-term, the exchange may allow for innovation that will eventually control, if not reduce, costs, several panelists said.

“People have this notion that we’re taking cost out of the system, what we’re really trying to do is [deflect] the level of increase in cost,” said Peter Andruszkiewicz, president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. The way to achieve this goal is to change the way care is paid for, he said.

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