Small-business health exchanges run by the federal government will not open for online enrollment until November, the administration said Thursday. But applicants may still enroll by phone, mail or fax beginning Oct. 1.
The White House had initially planned to launch these marketplaces, which serve businesses with fewer than 50 people, on Tuesday, the same day that individual marketplaces go live. While the Web sites of the federally run exchanges will go live on that date, an administration official said that the "feature of shopping for and comparing plans online will be available starting November 1."
Instead of a live application, the federal government will post a PDF version on Tuesday. Applications will still be taken by phone, mail and fax. Sometime in October, a live application will go up on the Web, the administration said.
"In November, small businesses will be able to enroll in coverage options, well ahead of when coverage begins on January 1," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters says. "The individual marketplace will still open on time on October 1 with full online enrollment and plan shopping options."
The Obama administration has delayed other features of the small-business marketplaces, including one that have allowed each employee to pick his or her own health plan, using funds from the workplace. Instead, that feature was delayed until 2015, and workers will enroll on the same plan that their employers select.
Gary Cohen, Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, explains the delay as a a decision that would improve consumers' experience shopping for coverage on the small business marketplace.
“We just wanted to make sure that we got it right and that it was going to be as helpful to small businesses as it possibly could be," Cohen says. "The small business market, unlike the individual market, where there’s a defined open enrollment period, in the small business market you can enroll any time during the year. We felt that taking a little bit of additional time to make sure everything is functioning as best as it possibly could be was the right way to go.”
Cohen reiterated that the individual marketplaces would be ready to enroll people on October 1.
Also Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the launch of the HeatlhCare.Gov Spanish-language Web site will be delayed until later in October. There will still be Spanish speakers reachable by phone on Oct. 1 to begin the enrollment process.
Carney said the administration estimates that 70 percent of the Latino population will enroll through English-language portals, suggesting the online delay would not have a large effect.
These delays are specific to the states where the federal government is running the marketplace, shown in light blue and green on the map below. The big question here is what this means for Obamacare. These setbacks won't necessarily reduce access to coverage. The health law's insurance plans don't start until Jan. 1. The White House will likely emphasize that even if people can't sign up until November, there's no change of date for when they actually enroll in Obamacare.
"We're disappointed that everything isn't locked and ready to go, but I don't think this is a big deal," says John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the Small Business Majority, which supports the health law. "It will be fully up and running by November, and coverage will start in January."
That's true, unless more setbacks arise in the coming days and weeks. We do know, for example, that the federal marketplace has had trouble determining what premiums individuals are supposed to pay. The District, which is running a separate exchange, has encountered similar issues and decided to hold off on making such determinations until November, when officials feel the information will be more accurate.
Obamacare opponents are already using the enrollment delay to make the case for delaying the law altogether.
“Every step in the implementation process has seen delays and setbacks; we are certainly not surprised by this one," Kevin Kuhlman, the National Federation of Independent Business' manager of legislative affairs, said. "Small-business owners should not be forced to comply with a law that is clearly not ready for prime-time. This is starting to seem like a parody; unfortunately, it is extremely serious.”
This newest delay, however, does not change anything essential about Obamacare.
Juliet Eilperin and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.