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My company, Mereco Technologies, a manufacturer of custom-formulated materials for electronics applications, has been a fixture in the Rhode Island small-business landscape since 1960. Over those 54 years, the company has always provided generous health care benefits for its employees.
As premium costs started to escalate around 2006, I became personally involved in the health insurance debate about the ability of the small-business community to sustain the increases. I have served on numerous committees and panels, both government and private, investigating the issue. Unfortunately, I arrived at the conclusion that the current system of health care delivery is utterly incapable of putting the brakes on costs.
When Rhode Island decided to establish its own health-benefits exchange, HealthSource RI, which incorporates employee choice into its portfolio of benefits, I found it intriguing. But I was skeptical of the desire and the ability of Mereco employees to contribute the time and effort to assume some of the burden related to the choice of health plans. After numerous meetings at Mereco, the employees decided that they would like to investigate the exchange.
Representatives from the exchange and our broker visited to make presentations. At a subsequent vote, employees voted by a large majority to move to the exchange, citing the ability to choose from the 16-plan portfolio and potentially reduce premium costs by determining the level of deductibles and copays they were comfortable with.
And other than having a couple of software glitches related to the issuance of new cards, Mereco is now off and running with the exchange.
Most small businesses don’t have the luxury of a full-time human resource department. Benefit issues and decisions usually land on the shoulders of the individual running the business, and that can be a tremendous diversion of time and effort. My hope was that by using the exchange, and engaging the employees in the process, much of the burden and decision-making would be removed from my shoulders. But there is more than that at work here.
Certainly, employee involvement and knowledge have improved dramatically. They feel that they have some skin in the game and control of their own destiny. A few employees even reduced their premium costs by choosing a tiered network available in the 16-plan portfolio. Best of all, the employees feel they are part of a grand design by the state to improve health care delivery and reduce costs.
I have learned that nested in among all of the continual local rhetoric against “Obamacare,” the biggest argument against the exchange is the availability of future funding. While I recognize that funding may be an issue, I also recognize that for once, Rhode Island has something to be proud of.
HealthSource RI is at the top in every national survey that I have read, and is referenced as a model for exchange design, primarily due to the unique, full employee-choice option. Instead of striving desperately to become No. 25, Rhode Island is No. 1 in a very important program with national visibility.
Will the Rhode Island business community tear itself apart with contentious debate and let the exchange collapse and wither away? Not if the small-business community will cut through the myths and fallacies and give it a fighting chance to survive. There is a much higher probability that adequate funding will be generated, either from the state or the federal government, if we all pitch in to make the exchange a success. HealthSource RI is indeed a true native Rhode Islander. •