The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIJune 15th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. You probably haven’t heard much about what may be Rhode Island’s biggest policy undertaking this year: the local rollout of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In a basement office, a small staff of true believers and outside consultants led by Christine Ferguson are working around the clock to set up the state’s new health insurance exchange – the marketplace where individuals and small businesses can buy coverage under the law – in time for enrollment to start Oct. 1. The exchange’s insurance costs should be finalized before mid-July, with announcements about its brand name and new call center, plus a big marketing push, to follow. (Policymakers also need to figure out how to fund the exchange’s operating costs locally once federal money runs out in 2015.) The Chafee administration is focusing more on business users than some states; unlike the federal government, Rhode Island’s exchange will let workers whose employers use the new Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) buy any insurance plan they want with their premium money. Ferguson is envisioning more than an Expedia for insurance – she wants the exchange to drive changes in how health care gets delivered in Rhode Island, with an eye on reducing costs and improving quality. The stakes are high: health care costs are strangling small businesses in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, yet health care also has been one of the only sectors of the state’s economy adding jobs.
2. Here’s something that may surprise you: Rhode Island’s economy grew faster than the New England average last year, expanding 1.4% to $43.8 billion, after barely treading water in 2011. The only state in the region that performed better was Massachusetts (up 2.2%), while the one often held up as a model for Rhode Island to emulate – New Hampshire – managed to grow just 0.5%. (Connecticut’s economy actually shrank.) Some of the outperformance, then, is the soft bigotry of low expectations for growth in New England: Rhode Island’s 1.4% expansion only placed 34th nationally. Also interesting is which three sectors were responsible for much of Rhode Island’s 2012 growth: real estate, finance and wholesale trade. Notably – and perhaps ominously – the biggest drag on the state economy was actually health care and social assistance, which had been growing steadily in recent years. Rhode Island’s real GDP was $41,678 per capita last year, just below the national average.
3. Speaking of health care, Governor Chafee made a key pick in that arena Thursday when he tapped Dr. Kathleen Hittner to succeed Chris Koller as Rhode Island’s health insurance commissioner, a powerful job that doesn’t exist in any other state. It’s an intriguing pick. Whereas Koller came out of the insurance industry as a former Neighborhood Health Plan CEO, Hittner was a top executive at Lifespan, the state’s most powerful hospital group; she’s best-known for her successful effort to revitalize The Miriam Hospital. Appointing as commissioner a physician with deep knowledge of hospital finance suggests Chafee and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts want Hittner’s office to drive changes across the state’s medical sector, particularly since she’ll also play a crucial role in regulating the state’s Obamacare exchange. Think about it: there’s only so much the commissioner can do by squeezing Blue Cross and the other insurers – their ever-rising premiums are driven up by the prices Lifespan and other providers charge. To get a sense of how Hittner thinks, watch her September guest appearance on Executive Suite.
4. Cokie and Steve Roberts think Lincoln Chafee’s decision to become a Democrat is another death knell for the moderate middle in American politics. “His conversion … marked another significant step in the gradual extinction of an ancient and honorable political species: Progressive Northeastern Republicans or PNRs,” they wrote in their column this week, adding: “The PNRs are just about gone. And American politics is much poorer without them.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is writing off Rhode Island Republicans’ chances in 2014 now that Chafee has become a Democrat.
5. There was a late-breaking story Friday out of South County with significant implications: the National Education Association Rhode Island won a National Labor Relations Board election to unionize 27 custodians whose jobs were privatized a year ago by the North Kingstown School Committee. The janitors technically now work for GCA Services Corp., a private firm owned by The Blackstone Group, and thus have the right to strike. No question, this is a shot across the bow. “It sends a message that we won’t back down, that workers have a right to union representation and, to the extent [town officials] thought privatizing was going to take away that right, the NLRB has a different set of rules,” NEARI Executive Director Robert Walsh told me. “Let this be a message to anyone else that has similar ideas – we’re still going to be there, representing workers in the public schools.” Sounds like NEARI is following the “Fortress Unionism” model Rich Yeselson outlines in the new issue of Democracy.
6. My pal Tim White was in Boston this week to cover opening statements in the Whitey Bulger trial, and the biggest initial headline was the defense team’s admission that Whitey, now 83, profited from the drug trade. “While it might come as little surprise that mob bosses would make money any way they can,” Tim said, “it completely shattered the myth that Bulger chased drug dealers out of South Boston.” Although Tim has been reporting on Bulger since the 1990s, “it dawned on me that this trial was the first time I’ve laid eyes on him in the flesh. For years he was a ghost. For the opening statements he’d shaved his beard and wore a green long-sleeved jersey, blue pants and white high-top sneakers.” He arrived to find a massive media scrum outside the Moakley Courthouse, with national and international reporters lined up to cover the trial. “In fact,” Tim said, “I sat next to a correspondent from the Irish Times – who began typing furiously when the defense argued Whitey could never have been an FBI informant because it was against his heritage to be a rat.” Another big difference in Boston: reporters can tweet in federal court, unlike in Providence, which Tim says “is seemingly stuck in 1975. Nationally, federal courts still ban cameras in the courtroom – a real shame considering the Bulger trial is also about the erosion of public trust in government – but each court can decide its own policies on phones and computers. Maybe Providence’s Chief Judge Mary Lisi will have a change of heart.” Tim will have more updates on Bulger’s trial in the months ahead.
7. Angel Taveras and Lincoln Chafee are at odds over whether Providence’s streetcar proposal is ready for a $39 million federal TIGER grant; Chafee has thrown his weight instead behind an application for $10 million to fix up the roads in Apponaug. Greater City: Providence’s Jef Nickerson thinks Taveras has the better of the argument, yet in making his case Jef revealed just how tough it will be for Rhode Island to win any TIGER grants this year: the U.S. Department of Transportation says it received $9 billion in TIGER applications, “nearly 20 times the $474 million Congress made available to the program.” It’s going to be a challenge for either Providence or Warwick to get a significant chunk of change.
8. A dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The number one question I’ve received following Tim White’s explosive report on the Providence school accused of running a sweatshop with disabled students has been, ‘How did this go on for 25 years (and four mayoral administrations) without anyone noticing?’ It’s true that the Council of Great City Schools raised an eyebrow about the Birch School in 2011; it’s also true that the R.I. Department of Education asked questions in 2012; and it’s true that the city tried and failed to fire the school’s principal in April. But Providence Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi said the city’s real mistake was failing to change with the times. ‘As I look at this situation, the standards of practice for [intellectually and developmentally disabled] students, as well as for all students, have changed over time,’ Lusi said Thursday. ‘Speaking for Birch and the Providence Public Schools, we failed to keep up with that change in practice and expectations.’ For what it’s worth, the federal government isn’t just focusing on Rhode Island; the Justice Department is currently taking on the state of Oregon after finding that 61% of the state’s developmentally disabled residents were working in similar ‘sheltered workshops.’”
9. WGBH Boston invited me back for this week’s episode of “Under the Radar,” Callie Crossley’s program about overlooked news stories across New England, along with the Cape Cod Times’ Paul Pronovost and WNHN’s Arnie Arnesen. I shared two Rhode Island stories: the Birch School revelations Dan mentioned above and the fiscal crunch in Woonsocket. The show airs Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on 89.7 FM and online – tune in!
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Duffy & Shanley’s David Duffy and Jon Duffy. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.
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