Delayed again: Maryland’s small-business health exchange will not open until April


Maryland’s health insurance exchange, which the president expected to have a relatively smooth rollout, will be the last one in the country to launch a small-business marketplace. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple weeks ago, when Maryland’s health department cancelled information sessions about the state’s already delayed small-business health insurance marketplace, we wondered whether the exchange was in jeopardy of a yet another delay.

State officials reassured us the site would still be ready in January.

It won’t be.

Maryland Health Benefits Exchange board members have revealed that the state’s new small-business exchange, which is meant to give employers access to more affordable and comprehensive health plans, will not be ready until April, six months after it was supposed to open in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.

“Maryland has a well-functioning small group market which offers the same prices as those that will be offered through the small group exchange,” the board members wrote in a memo posted online, noting that this second extension will “allow more time for testing and coordination over the next several months.”

Added Rebecca Pearce, the executive director of the exchange, “we are focusing our short-term strategy for success.”

Maryland was among a minority of states that elected to build their own health insurance exchanges, one for individual consumers and one for small employers, as required by the new health care law. Thirty-three states elected to use portals built and operated by the federal government.

Despite a few technical glitches, the state’s insurance exchange for individuals opened on time in October and the site has attracted more than 400,000 visitors, according to the board. But it has been a very different story for the employer marketplace.

Originally slated to open Oct. 1, Maryland officials announced this past spring that they would not be ready to launch the small-business side of the portal, commonly known as the SHOP exchange, until Jan. 1. Consequently, instead of offering plans that would begin coverage in January, as originally planned, the earliest the small-business plans would take effect would have been March.

Then, late last month, officials quietly nixed a series of workshops to educate employers about the exchange, raising suspicions that the site was headed for another delay. On Oct. 24, however, On Small Business asked Joshua M. Sharfstein, chairman of the exchange board, whether the site would still be ready for the scheduled launch in January.

“That is the current plan,” Sharfstein said at the time.

Now, the current plan is to open April 1, with coverage starting at the earliest in June. State health officials have repeatedly insisted that their top priority has been the individual exchange, which has forced them to push back the timeline for the small-business marketplace.

Still, it has been a rocky start for a state where, back in September, President Obama said the rollout was “going to be smoother in places like Maryland” than in those that defaulted to the federal exchange.

Instead, as Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown put it last month, “the state stumbled out of the gate.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.

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