Delayed again: Critical function of health care law’s small business exchange pushed back

J. Scott Applewhite/AP - Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Delayed once already, a critical function of the federal government’s new health insurance marketplace for small-businesses has been pushed back again.

Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is in charge of the federal exchange, revealed a revised timeline for the small-business exchange during a congressional hearing on Tuesday, stating that employers will not be able to actually enroll in plans online until the end of next month.

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“Let me ask you specifically, will the SHOP Website for small businesses that was delayed be fully functional during November?” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) asked Tavenner during the hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Yes, we will institute the SHOP component at the end of November,” Tavenner responded. She later added that the Spanish version of the federal exchange site, which was postponed at the same time as the small-business enrollment function, would be open “by the end of November,” too.

On Sept. 26, Health and Human Services officials first announced that, for the first month after the exchanges opened on Oct. 1, small-business owners hoping to enroll in new plans on the federal site would not be able to complete the process online. Instead, they would have to to mail or fax documents into the department for processing.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expanded on the details of the delay during a press briefing later that afternoon, specifying that small-business owners “will be able to apply for the tax credits beginning October 1st, and they will be able to enroll, if you will, for these programs beginning November 1st.”

CMS officials did not immediately respond to questions about the different timelines but pointed to a press release stating that the online enrollment function for the small-business exchange would be ready at some point in November — but not necessarily Nov. 1.

This is the latest in a string of delays for business owners hoping to take advantage of the new online insurance exchanges, which were meant to help drive down health costs for both individuals and small firms.

“I’ve never seen a law implemented with so many delays, mistakes and problems,” House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), wrote in an e-mail following the initial delay in the enrollment functions last month.

In April, Obama administration officials announced they would delay for a year one of the fundamental features on the small business portals. Originally, the exchanges were supposed to allow employers to offer an array of plans from which their workers could choose; however, for the first year, business owners on the federal site must pick one plan to cover their company.

Meanwhile, speaking about the delayed enrollment on Sept. 26, Carney reassured employers that coverage for plans purchased through the exchanges does not start until Jan. 1, giving them plenty of time to purchase plans even with the delay.

That start date is only for plans that are purchased before Dec. 15. Under CMS’s newly revealed timeline for the small-business site, employers would only have about two weeks to enroll in plans that take effect at the start of the year.

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