Legislative panel receives update on health exchange

HealthSource RI will be open for business on Oct. 1, the director of the program Christine Ferguson said Thursday.

The so-called health benefits exchange is a centerpiece of the federal health care overhaul. It's designed to help individuals and small businesses shop for insurance plans.

The federal government gave the state $82 million to set up the program and carry it through its first year. About $69 million has already been spent creating a website and negotiating the insurance offerings from private providers.

"It's a very, very tight timetable so of course we've had bumps in the road and we expect to have more. The federal government has been in to audit our progress and they were in last week and we passed with flying colors, and we're ready to go," Ferguson said.

The House Finance Committee quizzed Ferguson Thursday, because after 2015, the plan must pay for itself.

Ferguson said she believes Rhode Island businesses will be well served by the exchange.

"There will be fewer insured people in Rhode Island and I expect that small businesses for the first time will have more comprehensive and more alternatives than large businesses in the state," she said.

Most Americans will be required to have coverage as of Jan. 1. Many will be able to access federal subsidies through the exchange.

HealthSource RI is offering 12 individual and 16 small group plans for 2014.

About 124,000 people are currently uninsured in Rhode Island in a population of just over 1 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.