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Part of Small Business Exchange Website Goes Online

By Rebecca Adams, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

October 27, 2014 -- Part of the online version of the health law's small business insurance marketplace was activated in five states last week. The rest of the system will open when the next marketplace sign-up period begins on Nov. 15.

Small business owners will not yet be enrolling their workers in specific health insurance yet because plans' pricing won't be available until November. But employers can take other steps to get ready. Those include creating an online account, assigning a broker or agent to their account, completing an employer application, and uploading an employee roster.

In two of the states, Missouri and Ohio, businesses are able to choose the coverage level they will offer employees but allow workers to decide which insurance company's coverage is best for them. The other states testing the online small business exchange before the official start of open enrollment are Delaware, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Once the small business marketplace is implemented across the nation, 14 states in 2015 will be allowing employers the ability to let their workers choose which insurer's plan they prefer.

Last year, the federal website failed to work when it launched on Oct. 1 across the entire country. This year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is taking the advice of many IT professionals by testing the small business exchange, known as SHOP, before attempting to use it nationwide. That would give CMS officials and their contractors time to fix any problems that are revealed.

The small business website was supposed to start when the individual marketplaces were launched last year, but CMS officials delayed it. Paper applications were available for small businesses instead.

The small business marketplace coverage is available for companies with 50 or fewer full-time employees. Once the website is fully activated, it will be available for employers year-round, unlike the individual marketplace's regular enrollment procedures. Individuals can only sign up during open enrollment periods, unless their circumstances change in ways that are specified by federal officials.

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