Congressional delegation weighs in on HealthSource RI

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s congressional delegation is taking a cautious approach to the state’s debate over whether to jettison HealthSource RI for the federal Obamacare marketplace, saying it’s a matter for state lawmakers to decide.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long been active on health care issues, came the closest among the four Democrats to telling the General Assembly not to scrap the state-run health exchange for the federal HealthCare.gov system. While other states with locally run marketplaces are doing that, it’s usually because the state-run system had IT problems.

“Not only did HealthSource RI have a successful rollout that we can all be proud of, but it is also laying the foundation for a transition to a more efficient, higher quality, better coordinated health care system with better information for Rhode Island patients and consumers,” Whitehouse told WPRI.com in a statement.

“When you consider that Rhode Island’s total health care expenditures topped $8 billion in 2009, this could well prove to be a very wise investment,” he said.

Whitehouse’s senior colleague, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, was far more circumspect.

“This is a matter for the state to decide,” Reed spokesman Chip Unruh told WPRI.com.

“Senator Reed worked to ensure Rhode Island had the option of local control and maximum flexibility,” Unruh said in an email. “Rhode Islanders deserve access to the best, most comprehensive health coverage possible. It is healthy to have a checkup of the system and carefully examine all the options going forward.”

In the U.S. House, Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline both praised the successful HealthSource RI launch but declined to say whether lawmakers would be wise to switch to the federal marketplace in a bid to save money.

Langevin described HealthSource RI as “a national model for its state-driven, collaborative approach,” and said he hoped lawmakers “will consider the successes and opportunities, as well as the costs, in determining how the state will offer the highest quality health coverage to Rhode Islanders.”

Cicilline called HealthSource RI “a successful framework” that, “in many ways, has been a national model.” But he declined to recommend what lawmakers should do with it going forward.

“I recognize that the General Assembly is now considering ways to build upon this success to ensure Rhode Islanders continue to have access to quality affordable healthcare and I look forward to hearing the General Assembly’s ideas for moving forward,” Cicilline said.

Among the four Democrats, all but Cicilline voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act in 2010; he was elected that November to succeed Patrick Kennedy and is also a staunch supporter of the law. Whitehouse is the only one of the four who didn’t serve in the General Assembly before getting elected to Congress.

Also on Tuesday, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity released a second research brief urging lawmakers to switch to HealthCare.gov, arguing that “Rhode Island’s insurance market is simply too small to support a state-run exchange without imposing devastating fees, taxes, assessments, or other levies.”

Separately, HealthSource RI executive director Christine Ferguson announced the federal government has dropped its request for Rhode Island to chip in $4.6 million toward the marketplace’s revised $55 million proposed budget for the 2014-15 budget year, allowing the state to rely solely on federal dollars.

Ferguson said she got a call Friday from the U.S. Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, which is overseeing the marketplaces, to say the state could use federal money to fund HealthSource RI through the end of 2015.

“CCIIO expects HealthSource RI to have a sustainability plan that will address how the Exchange will be funded moving forward,” Ferguson said. “We will be working closely with CCIIO on that plan.”

As of late March, the federal government had granted HealthSource RI $111 million in startup funding, of which $89 million had been allocated and $45.8 million had been spent, a spokeswoman told WPRI.com at the time. HealthSource RI has since received an additional federal grant of $30 million, and has a pending request for more, Ferguson said last week.

Roughly 100,000 Rhode Islanders have used HealthSource RI to sign up for insurance since it opened in October.

About two-thirds of those people signed up for Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income Americans, while about 28,000 individuals signed up for private coverage, nearly all through Blue Cross. Some small businesses are also using HealthSource RI to buy coverage for their employees.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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