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.