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Administration Delays Online Health Insurance Enrollment for Small Businesses

By Rebecca Adams, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

November 27, 2013 -- Small-business owners who want to apply for new health coverage for their workers through the new marketplaces will have to do so through brokers or paper applications because the online portal will not work for another year, federal officials said recently.

"For 2014, small employers will use direct enrollment rather than in states where the federal government is running the marketplace," said a Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman in an email. "This allows small employers to sign up for coverage through offline enrollment while Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) works on creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace."

Even before the announcement, lobbyists who watch the issue had speculated that there would be an additional delay.

The 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) calls for online marketplaces in each state—typically one for individuals and a separate one for small companies. The federal website has handled enrollment for individuals in 36 states.

The delay affects businesses in those 36 states that are supposed to use for enrollment. The goal is to have an online Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) enrollment by November 2014.

CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner had testified that she recommended before the Oct. 1 launch of the new marketplaces to delay two functions of the website. One was the portal for small businesses and the other was for the Spanish-language version of the website. CMS officials promised that both of those delayed functions would be ready by the end of November, but neither will be. Administration officials recently said the Spanish-language website will be up later in December.

"This new delay announcement is a disappointment but not a surprise," said National Federation of Independent Business Manager of Legislative Affairs Kevin Kuhlman. "Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process. It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators. The continued delays add to uncertainty and contribute to the decision of many owners to take early renewals of their small-group plans."

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