White House unveils Health Care Wizard to teach business owners about Obamacare


The Obama administration is running out of time to sell its signature law to employers. (JESSICA RINALDI/REUTERS)

The White House has kicked its Obamacare outreach and education efforts into full gear, starting with a new Web site designed specifically for curious and confused business owners.

The new site let employers input their location, company size and current insurance plans to receive tailored information about changes under the law, important dates to remember, and the formulas for determining requirements and penalties.

Dubbed the Health Care Wizard, the site is part of BusinessUSA, the administration’s interagency information outlet for employers. The new site churns out information gathered from Department of Health and Human Services, the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration.

Officials say the goal was to bring state- and size-specific information as well as universally important facts about the law together in one place — part of a broader effort to disperse facts and dispel rumors about Obamacare.

On Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters the agency is still on pace to open the law’s new health insurance exchanges for individuals and small businesses in October. In addition, the department has made an effort to shield its Obamacare outreach efforts from the $15.5 billion in spending cuts the agency sustained as part of the sequester.

“This has been a significant priority area, so we’re finding ways to limit other kinds of administrative costs,” Sebelius said, adding that the agency is reserving enough money to make “sure I can travel and that people who need to do outreach can travel.”

It is crunch time for the administration, which has struggled to sell the law to the public, and in particular, to employers, who have pushed back against a number of provisions they find both costly and confusing.

Sebelius last month announced the agency would provide $150 million in grant funding to more than 1,500 health centers around the country to help them sign up businesses and individuals on the new exchanges. In total, those funds will be used to hire about 3,000 additional outreach workers and enrollment assistants.

Citing data from federal and state sources, the Associated Press has estimated the government will spend $684 million on Obamacare-related marketing and publicity this year.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are using the growing threat of a government shutdown this fall to try to derail the president’s efforts to smoothly implement the health care law. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for instance, has repeatedly urged his colleagues not to approve a new spending agenda that includes the required funding for Obamacare.

“Of all the issues out there, if there was one issue that we should be willing to go to the limit on, this is it,” Rubio said during a radio interview last week. “There’s literally not one aspect of our economy that is not negatively affected by Obamacare.”

Critics of the law have noted that a large number of business owners (though not as large as Rubio and others initially reported) have warned that they will limit hiring or cut employees a result of the law, which exempts firms with fewer than 50 full-time employees from penalties if they choose not to provide coverage to their workers.

The administration has brushed aside many of those concerns, noting that nearly every company that qualifies for the so-called employer mandate already offers adequate insurance to its workers, leaving only a small sliver of the business community forced to make any changes.

Instead, administration officials believe new tax breaks and increased competition on the new health insurance exchanges will drive down costs for many employers — and in some states, it is starting to work, as several insurance companies have proposed surprisingly low rates for the exchanges.

If that is to continue, though, experts say the administration must convince individuals and business owners alike to take part in the exchanges. If not, the concern is that there may not be enough incentive for insurers to keep driving down their rates.

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