Another Obamacare delay: How big a blow?

Small businesses in states that use HealthCare.gov now have to wait until November 2014 to shop for coverage online. The delay is not a game-changer, but it's another bit of bad news. 

Jon Elswick/AP
Part of the HealthCare.gov website page featuring information about the SHOP Marketplace Nov. 27. The Obama administration is delaying yet another aspect of the health care law, putting off until next November the launch of an online portal to the health insurance marketplace for small businesses.

Small businesses hoping to shop for health-insurance coverage at HealthCare.gov will now have to wait until November 2014.

The delay, announced Wednesday afternoon by the Obama administration, is the second for the rollout of the SHOP Marketplace – or Small Business Health Options Program – since late September. As delays go in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it’s not the biggest one the administration could have made. But it still matters.

Originally, the SHOP Marketplace – which is for businesses with 50 or fewer employees in states that use the federal health-insurance marketplace – was scheduled to open on Oct. 1, along with the rest of HealthCare.gov. But the Obama administration announced Sept. 26 that SHOP launch wouldn’t happen until November.

Since then, the shopping feature for individuals on HealthCare.gov has been so problematic that the government’s tech team has focused on that rather than getting SHOP up to speed.

Now, the new delay means that small businesses must wait an extra year to shop for coverage online. But they can still look for coverage through a broker or agent or go directly to insurers.

"We’ve concluded that we can best serve small employers by continuing this offline process while we concentrate on both creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace, and adding key new features, including an employee choice option and premium aggregation services, by November 2014," the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) wrote in a Q-and-A distributed to health-law stakeholders, according to The Washington Post.

The delay does not affect small businesses located in the 14 states with their own health-insurance marketplaces. Nor does it threaten the financial viability of the system.

Still, the delay for small businesses in the other 36 states is important because it deals another blow to the website’s troubled image – and to the Obama administration. The Thanksgiving-eve announcement seemed to be an effort to slip bad news over the transom when not many people would be paying attention.

This summer, on the eve of Independence Day, the White House announced a one-year delay in the mandate for large businesses to provide health insurance to their employees. Small businesses face no such mandate, although employees have an individual mandate to carry insurance.

Republicans and opponents of the ACA jumped on the small-business delay as yet another example of how the president “bit off more than he can chew” with the health-care law.

“Business owners across this country are already having health care plans for their employees canceled by this law, and now they’re told they won’t have access to the system the president promised them to find them different coverage,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) said in a statement. “Instead, they’ll have to resort to a system you’d expect to see in the 1950s.”

Wednesday’s announcement comes three days before the administration’s self-imposed deadline, Nov. 30, for major improvements in the functionality of HealthCare.gov.

By Saturday, “the vast majority [of individuals] will be able to go through the site smoothly,” said CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

But, Ms. Bataille warned, Nov. 30 is not a “magic date” or a “relaunch,” suggesting that users could still encounter problems, especially if traffic is high.

By Saturday, 50,000 users should be able to use the site at the same time, she said. If there are “extraordinarily high spikes in traffic,” consumers will be put in a new queuing system and notified by e-mail when they can return to the site.

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