Another Hiccup for Obamacare’s Small Business Marketplaces

In some marketplaces, employers will have to wait until November to buy health plans

A new delay for one of the many pieces of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to begin Oct. 1 is giving more fodder to the law’s opponents. Companies that want to buy health plans through some of the new marketplaces going online next week, known as SHOP exchanges, will have to wait until November to enroll.

Companies with 50 or fewer employees aren’t required to buy coverage under the law. But those that want to can use the Small Business Health Options Program, and some may get tax credits for providing coverage. The SHOP exchanges are separate from the online marketplaces that individuals will use to buy coverage. Some states are running their own SHOP exchanges, while others left it to the federal government to build them.

In those 36 states, companies will be able to browse among health plans starting Oct. 1, but they won’t be able to buy coverage until November, for coverage beginning in 2014, according to Joanne Peters, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Unlike in the individual marketplace, “open enrollment for the SHOP marketplace is year round, giving small business owners plenty of time to make a decision,” she says in an e-mail. “The individual marketplace will still open on time on October 1 with full online enrollment and plan shopping options.”

Another element of the SHOP exchanges has already been delayed. They were originally meant to let employees at the same company choose from a menu of different health plans, as workers at many large companies can. That requirement was put off for a year (though some states will still offer the capability). For 2014, employers choose one plan for the company to offer to all their workers.

The latest delay ignited criticism from opponents who want to dismantle the law. “With this latest glitch in the small-business exchanges, the case for a delay of the individual mandate alongside the employer mandate only grows stronger,” Kevin Kuhlman, of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in an e-mail to reporters. “Small business owners should not be forced to comply with a law that is clearly not ready for prime time.”

Representative Sam Graves, the Missouri Republican who chairs the House Small Business Committee, said Obamacare’s “delays, false starts and misinformation are leading to even more confusion and uncertainty for small businesses.” He urged repeal, something House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to do.

Peters, the Health Department spokeswoman, says the White House is starting an outreach campaign “to make sure small businesses have the information they need.”

Small Business Majority Chief Executive John Arensmeyer, who is a proponent of the law, characterized the recent hiccup as minor. The delay “is disappointing, but doesn’t change the fact that these exchanges will still be open for business on Oct. 1 and coverage will begin as scheduled on Jan. 1, 2014,” he said in a statement.

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