The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIOctober 5th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. HealthSource RI, Rhode Island’s Obamacare marketplace, got off to a relatively smooth start this week – despite the failings of the Obama administration itself, which by all accounts seriously botched the back-end technology. HealthSource RI executive director Christine Ferguson lauds her team for their work on the local system, which had processed 580 applications for coverage as of Thursday. But she also admits that there were more individuals and small businesses who were stymied by the buggy federal identity-verification process when they tried to enroll this week. The federal data hub “was a really disappointing component and very unfortunate,” Ferguson said Friday on Newsmakers. “I mean, I understand, but it’s unfortunate.” HealthSource RI is using backstops while the feds get their act together. “But at the end of the day, that data hub is going to have to work more effectively or we’re going to have to do everything manually,” Ferguson said. “In the long run it’s not a killer, because coverage doesn’t start until Jan. 1, [but] it’s disappointing.” Looking ahead, Ferguson hopes the General Assembly will give HealthSource RI an annual administrative budget of $17.9 million to $23.9 million starting in 2015, when federal funding runs out and the insurance exchanges have to become self-sustaining. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will buy into her expansive vision for HealthSource – or, if they do, where they’ll find all that money.
2. For a 29-year-old earning $46,000, the cheapest available plan on HealthSource RI carries a steep premium of $186 a month, or more than $2,200 a year – even though the plan also has a $5,000 deductible. That’s a big cost for a young person who may already be on the fence about whether health coverage is worth buying. One way to change that: deregulation. Specifically, next year the General Assembly should look at whether all the benefits that state law mandates for all health plans are absolutely necessary. And it looks like at least some people are already thinking along these lines. The new health law passed this year by Sen. Josh Miller calls for a close examination at Rhode Island’s health mandates, and the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity says a report it’s releasing later this month will “propose multiple market-based solutions to address this access-to-healthcare shortfall, without requiring additional taxpayer funding.”
3. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “Don’t expect much to come from the request by several dissident R.I. Board of Education members to revisit a July vote that allowed the high-performing Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy to expand to seven campuses. Board Chairwoman Eva-Marie Mancuso has already said she’ll allow a discussion at Monday’s meeting, but she has dismissed the idea of rescinding the 8-3 vote to allow the school to grow (in campus size, not enrollment). Yet the criticisms leveled by board member Colleen Callahan and others shouldn’t fall on deaf ears. Callahan says she’s upset with board process, which has been a recurring theme since the General Assembly merged the state’s two education boards. ‘I do think there were some people who missed the nuances because the discussion was so short and then we moved to a vote,’ Callahan told WPRI.com. Callahan, who works for the R.I. Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals union, said she’s concerned about the board not being fully prepared before it takes votes, an issue that’s magnified by the amount of work the volunteer board has been forced to juggle, charged as it is with overseeing public education from pre-K through college. Callahan probably won’t win over her colleagues on the Blackstone Valley Prep matter, but her frustration could force state leaders to revisit the board merger. Remember: Mancuso and House Finance Chairman Helio Melo have already said they’d be open to moving back to two boards if the new one continues to flounder.”
4. Two stories about judicial appointments this week made for an interesting pair. On Wednesday, Dan McGowan broke the news that Mayor Taveras would appoint David Igliozzi to a vacancy on the Providence Housing Court. Igliozzi is of course the brother of City Councilman John Igliozzi, as well as a former state senator and a part-time city solicitor; the vacancy was created when Jorge Elorza resigned to launch a campaign to succeed Taveras. And Taveras himself created the vacancy filled by Elorza when he resigned to launch his campaign to succeed David Cicilline - who appointed both of them. Quite a merry-go-round. Meantime, up the street Governor Chafee’s powerful top aide Richard Licht, a former Democratic lieutenant governor, asked the Ethics Commission to let him seek a vacant Superior Court judgeship. If the Judicial Nominating Commission signs off, Chafee could nominate Licht for confirmation by the Senate – the same Senate where Licht used to serve. Sometimes, getting a judgeship looks like an insider’s game.
5. Speaking of appointments, congratulations to Providence native Brian Nichols on being nominated by President Obama as the next American ambassador to Peru. As U.S. Sen. Jack Reed told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Nichols’ father Charles founded what is now Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies, while his mother Mildred serves on the board of Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island. Nichols, a 24-year Foreign Service veteran, currently works in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
6. In light of growing buzz about a looming settlement of the big pension lawsuit, it’s worth looking back at what NEARI chief Bob Walsh suggested in his October 2011 op-ed about the issue. At the time, Walsh hinted that retirees might be better off trying “to mitigate damages by advocating for the least egregious of the potential options” rather than taking “a legally defensible hard line of no change.” Walsh is currently under a judicial gag order due to the mediation, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the final settlement include some of his ideas: giving retirees a less generous COLA, reamortizing the state’s pension liability over a longer period, and paying a larger pension to workers who wait to retire. The question is, how much more would taxpayers need to put into the pension fund to cover those changes?
7. Between the sequester and the shutdown, federal budget policy has been in flux all year. One of the agencies impacted is the National Institutes of Health, which has lost a significant amount of research funding so far. Alan Rothman, the URI professor who won more than $20 million from the NIH in recent months, said the sequester cuts and “the overall trajectory of the federal budget” have cut the success rate of NIH applicants to “historic low levels.” Rothman is also concerned about the impact of the shutdown: though it hasn’t affected his lab directly, it could stop the military from sending representatives to next month’s big meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “It’s the one time of the year when our group gets together to review progress and discuss plans,” Rothman said on this week’s Executive Suite. “It could have a significant impact.”
8. Rhode Island PBS was kind enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Gary Sasse, Wendy Schiller and Ed Achorn. Topics include the shutdown, HealthSource RI’s launch and Rhode Island Republicans’ gun raffle. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.
9. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the items Dan McGowan, Tim White and I published this week: HealthSource RI processed 580 applications in its first days despite an initial website crash and federal snafus … the more female, old, poor or unhealthy you are, the more likely you’ll get a better deal … Rhode Island’s job market won’t reach pre-recession levels until 2018 … Cicilline, Langevin and Kennedy stuck with Nancy Pelosi on shutdown votes, but Bill Keating broke ranks … Cicilline also quarreled with the American League of Lobbyists … Rhode Island’s delegation says they’ll go without pay if back wages aren’t provided … Richard Licht and David Igliozzi want to be judges … Rhode Island’s default rate on student loans hit 12.8% … NECAP is still controversial … Providence’s tobacco ban was upheld … and Judge Taft-Carter got another update on the pension mediation.
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers - Christine Ferguson, executive director of HealthSource RI. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Dr. Alan Rothman, URI research professor; Josh Short, Wilbury Theatre Group artistic director, on its new show “Detroit.” 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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