By Natalie Villacorta
By Natalie Villacorta
WARWICK – Choice was the word Wednesday morning at the Providence Business News Summit on the Health Benefits Exchange.
Christine Ferguson, executive director of HealthSourceRI, the state’s benefits exchange, said that giving individuals choice when it comes to health insurance will eventually affect cost. She encouraged small business owners in the audience to sign up for the full employee choice option — whereby employers select a base (or reference) plan on the exchange and set a contribution amount and their employees can apply that contribution toward any of the 16 plans on the exchange.
Ferguson also repeatedly asked for business cards, saying that HealthSourceRI would be happy to help small businesses explore their options.
“This is a critically different thing than any other state in the country is doing,” Ferguson said. “If we do this well, every single person in Rhode Island will understand that the choice they make … has the potential of reducing cost. And when you feel like what you’re doing can actually make a difference, you do it in a much more robust way,” she said.
Ferguson’s responses formed the core of the two-and-a-half hour summit, produced by PBN in partnership with HealthSourceRI and a number of other sponsors and hosted by the Crowne Plaza Hotel Providence-Warwick. A crowd of 400 business owners, human resources professionals, insurance brokers and others interested in the topic attended the event, which occurred less than a week before HealthSourceRI.com goes live with information that businesses and individuals can use to decide on which health plans they would like to purchase, and three months before those plans begin covering Rhode Islanders on Jan. 1.
After choice, cost was the second word of the morning. In the short term, the exchange won’t be saving employers money, several panelists agreed. But in the long term, the exchange may allow for innovation that will eventually control, if not reduce, costs.
“What we’re trying to do is not take money out of the system but deflect the level of increase,” said Peter Andruszkiewicz, president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. He pointed to SelectRI, a BCBSRI exchange product that will give consumers the incentive to use a patient-centered medical home and to have laboratory testing or radiology services performed at more cost-effective locations.
The cost of premiums is the primary concern of small business owners, said Philip Papoojian, chairman of the Smaller Business Association of New England and president and COO of Mereco Technologies, representing the small business perspective on the panel. With regards to the exchange, Papoojian said he and other small businesses have a “wait and see” attitude. They’ve seen a dramatic increase in the costs over the years and maintaining competitive health insurance plans is crucial to drawing good employees, he said.
If the exchange offers lower premiums and better benefits, he would consider it. But even that’s the case, he expressed concern about his employees’ ability to understand the complexity of health insurance and choose their own plans. Education and working with brokers will be crucial to making the exchange succeed, he said.
Arguing for the user-friendliness of the exchange, Ferguson said that it only took 10 minutes for her to explain to her hairdresser the different options that she would have on HealthSourceRI and another 5 minutes for her hairdresser to pick out a plan. She also noted that consumers can contact the call center for help choosing a plan and throughout the year if problems arise.
“My hairdresser and your employees, they all really know what has to happen and they want to do it; they’re ready,” she said.
”Please, please do not let your cynicism of the system stand in the way of taking advantage of a moment in time when Rhode Island could be the best in the country. … We can do this,” Ferguson urged.
In addition to partner sponsor, HealthSourceRI, presenting sponsors for the Summit on the Health Benefits Exchange were AARP, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and USI Insurance Services. Co-sponsors were the Brown University Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership, Coastal Medical and Delta Dental.