Obamacare tweaked again: Medium-sized businesses given more time

Businesses with between 50 and 99 employees now have until 2016 to cover their workers. Republicans say the Obamacare change is more proof the president can't be trusted to follow laws. 

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
A man looked over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York, Oct. 2, 2013.

Medium-sized businesses – those with between 50 and 99 full-time employees – will have an extra year to provide health coverage for their employees, in the latest change by the Obama administration to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Such businesses will still have to report on how many of their workers have coverage, but won’t have to provide the coverage themselves until 2016 or pay a penalty.

Larger businesses – those with 100 or more full-time employees – also got a break in the new regulations issued Monday by the Treasury Department. Starting Jan. 1, 2015, larger businesses must cover only 70 percent of their employees, and have until 2016 to cover 95 percent, or face penalties. Originally, larger businesses had to cover 95 percent of employees in 2015.

The moves are aimed at making it easier on employers to comply with the law, a Treasury official said.

“While about 96 percent of employers are not subject to the employer responsibility provision, for those employers that are, we will continue to make the compliance process simpler and easier to navigate,” Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur said in a statement. 

“Today’s final regulations phase in the standards to ensure that larger employers either offer quality, affordable coverage or make an employer responsibility payment starting in 2015 to help offset the cost to taxpayers of coverage or subsidies to their employees.”

The regulations also push preparations for the start of the employer mandate for medium-sized businesses away from the November 2014 midterm elections. Republicans are planning to use "Obamacare" as their No. 1 argument against the Democrats.

Smaller businesses – those with fewer than 50 full-time employees – still face no mandate to provide coverage. Most individuals have faced a requirement to carry coverage since Jan. 1, 2014, though the law allows people to be uninsured for three consecutive months in a calendar year without penalty, so the mandate really kicks in on April 1. The regulation on employer health coverage also exempts volunteer and seasonal employees – those who work six months or less in a calendar year. 

Congressional Republicans responded quickly with dismay over the latest changes to the ACA, furthering their argument that President Obama can’t be trusted to follow laws as passed.

“Once again, the president is giving a break to corporations while individuals and families are still stuck under the mandates of his health-care law,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said in a statement. “And, once again, the president is rewriting law on a whim.”

The tweaks to the ACA don’t affect as many people as it may seem, because most large employers already provide health coverage. In 2013, 99 percent of companies with 200 or more workers offered insurance coverage to their employees, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And 91 percent of businesses with between 50 and 199 workers offered coverage.

Monday’s move follows the news Friday that the Obama administration is allowing people who are unhappy with plans purchased on the federal marketplace, HealthCare.gov, to switch their plans by March 31, the last day of open enrollment.  

People who are unhappy with their plan, because for example it does not include their old doctors, will be allowed to switch as long as they stay with the same insurer and the same basic level of coverage, according to The Washington Post, citing a memo distributed Thursday night to insurers. The administration has not announced the plan-switch option, but has quietly reworked the code on HealthCare.gov to allow plan-switching, the Post reported.  

The Obama administration has been scrambling since Oct. 1, 2013, when HealthCare.gov opened for business in an extremely rocky start. The administration says that it has the legal right to make minor changes to the law, in the name of smoother implementation, though Republicans say the president is violating the Constitution, which requires that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” 

Some in the business community complained Monday that the delay only postpones the inevitable, and demonstrates that the ACA is tough to implement. But one group, the National Retail Federation (NRF), applauded the administration for working with the business community as the health-care law is implemented. 

“The administration should receive a gold medal for recognizing the enormous complexities of the Affordable Care Act, and its agility and flexibility in working with retailers and others in crafting these much-needed and common-sense reforms and revisions,” said NRF vice president Neil Trautwein.

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