By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) â¿¿ The director of the new state health insurance exchange being created as part of the federal health overhaul says that it is on track to begin enrolling Rhode Islanders this fall and that it should offer patients a larger role, additional choice and more affordability in their health care.
Christine Ferguson said the exchange â¿¿ an online insurance marketplace designed to help individuals and small businesses buy health coverage â¿¿ is in the middle of a "steady build." That includes everything from the technology needed to allow people to enroll online to the outreach that will be done to get people to use it.
The exchanges, which are being rolled out in every state, are a centerpiece of the federal Affordable Care Act, the biggest addition to the social safety net in the U.S. since Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 and an attempt to get coverage to about 30 million Americans who lack it.
"At a time over the last 20 years when everything's been contracting at the state level, we're talking about creating some new capacity," Ferguson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I think that that offers us a wonderful opportunity."
Rhode Island is one of 18 states building its own exchange and is using about $74 million in federal funds. The new health care law requires most individuals to have insurance as of Jan. 1, provides subsidies to help pay for it and penalizes those who don't get it. Businesses with 50 or more employees also will be required to offer coverage, or likewise face a penalty.
State officials say about 126,000 Rhode Islanders are uninsured in a population of just over 1 million â¿¿ about 12 percent. Through the exchange and an expansion of Medicaid, the government program that provides health coverage for low-income individuals, Rhode Island hopes to eventually achieve near universal coverage.