Last Wednesday brought some more bad news for small businesses looking to purchase health care coverage online — healthcare.gov won't fully be fully available to them for another year.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already pushed back small business enrollment from the official Oct. 1, 2013 start date to sometime in November. Now, with the new target date of November 2014, small businesses will have to continue relying on agents and brokers to buy insurance instead of signing their employees up online using the Small Business Health Option Program (SHOP).
According to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille, the delay was a result of the Obama administration focusing its energy on getting more individuals to sign up by the Nov. 30 start date. Only about 26,000 people signed up in October, which was in part due to server problems and general confusion about the website, and about 100,000 users signed up in November. However, the Obama administration had hoped to accumulate 800,000 registered users within the first two months.
Small businesses were always a low priority in the context of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Bataille told reporters in a conference call that the delay didn't mean much because small businesses were already accustomed to getting insurance through agents and brokers. The online exchange would simply replace those brokers and make it easier for employers to compare plans on their own.
"We've concluded that we can best serve small employers by continuing this offline process while we concentrate on both creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP marketplace," the Obama administration confirmed, according to an internal document provided to Bloomberg Businessweek.
To purchase SHOP health insurance plans, small businesses must download and fill out an application from healthcare.gov with the help of an agent, mail it to an address in London, Ky., and then wait for the Department of Health and Human Services to notify them if they're eligible. Once a company selects a plan and employees decide to enroll, the business can fill out an online application.
With SHOP, small businesses will be eligible in 2014 for tax credits up to 50% of premium contributions. Currently, businesses with fewer than 25 full-time employees can get tax credits of up to 35% of their contributions.
It's not the biggest setback given the host of other enrollment issues healthcare.gov has experienced. But critics used this delay as another reason why Obamacare is doomed to fail.
"Once again, President Obama has unilaterally delayed another major portion of Obamacare, and once again, he has tried to bury bad news around a holiday hoping nobody will notice," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the Hill.
"Piecemeal delays and working outside of Congress to issue regulations does nothing to solve the fact that this law remains a tremendous failure that still, two months into open enrollment, is not even 80% operational," U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told Bloomberg.
The delay will only affect the 36 states where the federal government is running the health care exchange. The Department of Health and Human Services updated the website to make comparison shopping easier for businesses Dec. 1, but until the entire process goes up online, expect more paperwork.