Just as it seemed all was quiet on the pre-holiday health care news front, the administration announced another big Obamacare delay ahead of the Thanksgiving break.
The online insurance exchange for small businesses will be delayed a year, to November 2014. The Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, allows employers to purchase insurance for their employees through the federal exchange. Officials originally delayed the online SHOP marketplace in September, but said it would be up and running "sometime in November." The announcement Wednesday pushes it back another year.
"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," said a Health and Human Services Department notice.
Small businesses have been able to enroll using paper applications since the launch of the Obamacare insurance exchanges on Oct. 1. They will still be able to enroll through means other than through the website, and HHS is now encouraging enrollment for 2014 through agents, brokers, or insurers offering certified SHOP plans.
"This process, called 'direct enrollment,' is similar to how most small employers get insurance today," HHS explained in a blog post Wednesday. "You don't need to apply for SHOP eligibility before enrolling, or to use HealthCare.gov, unless you'd like to see information on your plan options, including which insurance companies offer SHOP Qualified Health Plans in your area."
Businesses still have an incentive to enroll in coverage through the SHOP exchange because it allows them to compare plans, and provides many with expanded tax credits. Those credits are only available for coverage purchased through SHOP.
"The agent, broker, or insurer will enroll your employees, and the SHOP Marketplace will review your application and can determine later whether your business and employees are eligible for SHOP coverage," HHS said. "The main reason for you to get the SHOP eligibility determination in 2014, is to allow you to claim the expanded the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit at the end of your tax year — as long as you also meet all the other requirements for the tax credit."
The delay applies only to those states using the federal exchange. State-run exchanges have generally had a smoother start to implementation for their individual marketplaces and SHOP exchanges.
Republican lawmakers jumped on the new, citing the delay as another example of a flawed Affordable Care Act. "Once again, President Obama has unilaterally delayed another major portion of Obamacare, and once again, he has tried to bury bad news around a holiday, hoping nobody will notice," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wrote in a statement. A delay in the law's employer mandate was announced this year just two days before the July 4 holiday.
HHS is still working to repair HealthCare.gov. Officials say it will be running smoothly for the majority of users by Saturday as promised by the Obama administration, but high traffic over the holiday remains a concern.