Obamacare's Small Business Marketplace Remains Stalled

Small employers that want to buy health plans through the Small Business Health Options Program on healthcare.gov still have to mail in applications, and there’s no sign that the site will be fully functioning by the end-of-November deadline the White House set.

Companies with up to 50 employees can browse plans on healthcare.gov, starting on this page. (The government also offers this rather cumbersome, embedded spreadsheet of approximately 45,000 health plans offered across the country—have at it, Excel jockies.) The quotes here are sample premiums for individuals (ages 27 or 50) or for different arrangements of family coverage. There’s no place—that I could find, anyway—to get a single quote that includes some employees on family plans and some on individual coverage.

Actually applying for small business coverage on healthcare.gov right now requires both online and offline steps. Employers must set up an online account, then download a PDF application. After filling out the application (possibly with the help of a broker), business owners must print it out and mail it to London, Ky., where the paperwork is being processed manually. After that, the Health and Human Services Department is supposed to contact employers and confirm that they’re eligible. Then the company can select plans and offer employees coverage. After workers decide whether or not to enroll, companies can finally submit their application online and pay for the first month of their policies. Got it?

There’s no sign from the government that this is going to get much easier soon.

“We are exploring options to ensure that small businesses have access to coverage in the SHOP marketplace. We are continuing to do an assessment of that work, and we’ll have a process in place by the end of this month,” HHS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said on a conference call with reporters Monday, according to a transcript provided by the agency. She wouldn’t comment on when online enrollment would be working, but she said details on an “enhanced process” would be coming “soon.”

Employers in states that built their own exchanges may be having an easier time, or not. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees don’t face penalties under the Affordable Care Act for not offering coverage, and they can buy health plans at any time. That’s not the case for individuals, who have to have obtain coverage by March 31 to avoid paying a penalty. Individuals are also limited by open-enrollment periods (to prevent people from buying insurance only when they get sick), which in 2014 also go through March 31.

The federal website still reflects the government’s apparently unfounded optimism that the launch delays would be fixed promptly. After informing employers about the paper application process, the site says, “Or you can wait until November to handle the entire application process online.” In fairness, it doesn’t specify November 2013.

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