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By Richard Asinof
PROVIDENCE – Christine C. Ferguson will be appointed by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee as the new director of the R.I. Health Benefits Exchange at a news conference at the Statehouse, state officials announced Thrusday.
The exchange - created by an executive order by Chafee in September 2011 - will link consumers and employees with affordable health coverage, one of the key components of federal health care reform.
It is expected to become operational in late 2013, according to R.I. Health Commissioner Christopher F. Koller.
Ferguson will now undertake the leadership of the design, development and operation of the exchange, and the Advisory Board members already appointed by the governor will serve as her advisors in that process.
“It is an economic imperative to solve the problem of the uninsured and rising health care costs in our state, and the health benefits exchange will help us address this challenge,” said Chafee in a statement.
“Christy’s leadership and experience in state health policy, implementation of the Affordable Care Act, health care delivery system reform, Medicaid, health care financing and management, and many other areas makes her the ideal choice for leading the Exchange,” added Chafee.
Ferguson, in a phone interview in advance of the news conference, said that she welcomed the opportunity to return to work in Rhode Island on health care.
“So much terrific work has been done already,” she said. “We’re a national leader.”
To get the exchange up and running, Ferguson continued, will be a challenge. “To be ready by 2014 is going to be a sprint.”
Ferguson said the job offer came from conversations with the Chafee administration regarding the exchange.
“We had a couple of conversations about what they were trying to do with the exchange, and over the course of those talks, they asked if I would be interested in running it, and I said yes,” Ferguson said.
“People are aware of how much in front Rhode Island is [on health care reform],” Ferguson said. “I feel like I’m joining a robust and cutting-edge team.”
Edward Quinlan, president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, praised the selection. “Ferguson has the versatility and experience, she is uniquely and extraordinarily equipped to help shape the future of health care for our state. It’s a terrific selection by the governor to bring her home,” he said.
“We have made tremendous progress in reforming our state’s health care system to benefit Rhode Islanders, and we’re leading the country in developing a health benefits exchange,” said Lt. Governor Elizabeth H. Roberts, chair of the R.I. Healthcare Reform Commission, in a statement.
However, Roberts continued, the increasingly unaffordable cost of health coverage for our state’s families and businesses must be addressed.
“Christy Ferguson is a nationally respected leader who can help Rhode Island to navigate the challenging waters of healthcare reform whatever may change at the federal level in the coming months and year,” Roberts said.
Roberts told Providence Business News that the exchange would move forward, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court decides.
“No matter what happens with the Supreme Court, the exchange will be a resource for small businesses and individuals purchasing health insurance in Rhode Island,” she said. “And also for all Rhode Islanders to really look at what their health insurance is, what the affordability is for them.”
Ferguson, who is currently a professor at George Washington University focusing on health policy and health insurance issues, has served as commissioner of the Department of Public Health in Massachusetts as well as leader of the R.I. Department of Human Services.
Prior to that, she served as counsel and deputy chief of staff to the late U.S. Senator John H. Chafee from 1981-1995.
Ferguson holds a BA from the University of Michigan and a JD from Washington College of Law, American University.