Update: 4:15 p.m.
The Obama administration announced Wednesday it will delay by one year online enrollment in the exchanges for small businesses. Instead, small businesses will have to enroll offline until November 2014 through an agent, broker or qualified insurer.
The administration last month delayed temporarily the online launch for these federally run small business exchanges known as SHOP, which provide tax credits for covering employees. Now it has decided to push the online sign-up back for a year and rely on offline enrollment instead.
“We are opening up direct enrollment for small businesses to sign up immediately through an insurer, agent or broker,” said Julie Bataille, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services.
An HHS advisory said: “For 2014, small employers will use ‘direct enrollment’ rather than HealthCare.gov in states where the federal government is running the Marketplace.”
The announcement reflects ongoing problems with the HealthCare.gov website, which have badly damaged the rollout of President Barack Obama’s signature law and posed political problems for the Democratic Party. It’s a sign that the White House is narrowing its goals regarding the troubled website, which caters to residents the states that declined to build their own exchanges.
“This allows small employers to sign up for coverage through offline enrollment while CMS works on creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace,” HHS said.
The Affordable Care Act does not mandate that businesses with fewer than 50 full-time employees provide coverage to their workers. The SHOP exchange is an option for the small businesses who do provide coverage.
More broadly, Bataille told reporters that HHS was “on track” to make HealthCare.gov work “for the vast majority of” individuals by the end of the month, as the White House has said, but cautioned that like most websites, not every aspect of it will function flawlessly.
Republicans immediately pounced on the announcement, describing it as further evidence that Obamacare should be fully repealed.
“With each passing day, it’s clear how much worse ObamaCare is than a website full of glitches,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “It’s time we stop delaying pieces of ObamaCare and instead scrap it and start over with common sense reforms that will actually lower costs and increase access to care.”
Small Business Majority, an advocacy group that supports of Obamacare, called the SHOP online delay “disappointing” and said it’s “important it get up and running as soon as possible.”
“However, it doesn’t change the fact that the marketplace can offer the most competitive combination of price and quality for small businesses purchasing health insurance,” said John Arensmeyer, Founder & CEO of Small Business Majority. “Small employers will still have two ways to enroll in the marketplace and access coverage. What’s more, the nation’s 22 million self-employed individuals are already able to enroll in the individual marketplace, which is a step in the right direction for our nation’s entrepreneurs.”