Ferguson tapped for health post

Christine C. Ferguson, who worked for Governor Chafee’s late father, to serve as director of health benefits exchange


Governor Chafee has chosen a professor and former state health official –– whose long career in health-care policy began as an aide to Chafee’s late father –– to serve as director of Rhode Island’s Health Benefits Exchange.

Chafee is scheduled to announce the appointment of Christine C. Ferguson Thursday morning. She will start next week in the $183,000-ayear post, which is funded with federal money.    The Health Benefits Exchange will be an online marketplace where uninsured people, individuals and small businesses can shop for health insurance, starting in 2014. It is a central aspect of the federal health care overhaul.

As deputy chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee in the 1990s and later as Massachusetts public health commissioner under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, Ferguson worked on developing Republican health-care proposals that later became models for President Obama’s law.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity. I’m very, very honored to have been asked,” Ferguson said Wednesday of the Rhode Island exchange. In Rhode Island, she said, “We have an opportunity to do something in health care that is really unique and advanced. We’ve done it the past. We can do it in the future.”

Governor Chafee called Ferguson the “ideal choice for leading the exchange,” because of her experience in health policy, financing and management.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of the federal health-care law, leaders in Rhode Island have pledged to move forward with the state’s exchange, making use of a $58 million federal grant, which the state will keep regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.

The appointment brings Ferguson’s career full circle. In1993, she worked with John Chafee on the first bill to callfor an “individual mandate” requiring all to obtain health insurance. At the time, the bill was the GOP alternative to President Bill Clinton’s health care plan. Years later, many concepts from that bill were incorporated into President Obama’s 2010 health care law, and the individual mandate is now at the center of the constitutional challenge to the law.

After 14 years with John Chafee, Ferguson served as Rhode Island’s director of human services from 1995 to 2001. During that time she oversaw a different effort to improve health care –– the state’s RIte Care plan for low-income families. RIte Care is widely regarded as a success, for providing women and children on Medicaid better access to primary care, reducing hospital use and improving health.

Ferguson, who describes herself as “an old-style New England Republican,” stepped down from state office to run for Congress in 2001, seeking the Republican nomination to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy. She lost the Republican primary.

From 2003 to 2005, Ferguson served as commissioner of public health in Massachusetts, working with Romney as he first contemplated the Massachusetts health care overhaul, which eventually became a model for the current federal law. “I introduced him to the concept of the individual mandate,” Ferguson said. She said that Romney, now the presumed Republican nominee for president, was one of the smartest people she’s worked with in government and “a pretty quick study” on health-care issues.

Ferguson, 53, who lives in Jamestown, will retain her academic appointment at George Washington University, where she has been a professor of health policy for six years. But she will forgo the regular commutes to Washington and will work full-time for the exchange.

Lt. Gov. Elizabeth H. Roberts, chair of the R.I. Health-care Reform Commission, said in a statement: “Christy Ferguson is a nationally respected leader who can help Rhode Island to navigate the challenging waters of health care reform whatever may change at the federal level in the coming months and years.”

Ferguson praised the work by Roberts and the reform commission to engage representatives of many interests in shaping the exchange. “People feel comfortable sharing perspectives and views,” she said. “That’s a huge accomplishment and one that most states haven’t achieved yet.”

Even if the high court overturns the individual mandate, Ferguson said she believes it’s possible for Rhode Island to proceed with the exchange and with insuring more people. “Rhode Island is probably one of the few states and maybe the only state in the position, because of work that’s already been done, to really keep pushing forward,” she said.

As long as the federal subsidies and expansion of the Medicaid program remain, insurance can be made affordable and more people will voluntarily enroll, she said. “The key is to make [insurance] affordable and to make it easily accessible. You do that, you get most people in.”

Ferguson will report directly to the governor. Asked how she felt about working for her old boss’s son, Ferguson said, “I don’t think of him as John Chafee’s son. He really is his own person. He’s established his own approach to government.”

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