Glitches hold up elements of health-care sign-up process

Small-business health exchanges run by the federal government will not open for online enrollment until November, the Obama 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 employees, 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 Nov. 1.”

Instead of putting a live application online, the federal government will post a PDF version Tuesday. 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 Jan. 1,” Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said. “The individual marketplace will still open on time on Oct. 1 with full online enrollment and plan shopping options.”

The Obama administration has delayed other features of the small-business marketplaces, including one that would have allowed each employee to pick his or her own health plan using funds from the workplace. That feature was delayed until 2015; instead, workers will enroll in the plan their employers select.

Gary Cohen, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, explained the delay as a decision that would improve consumers’ experiences 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 said. “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 Oct. 1.

Also Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the launch of the 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. The big question 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 the date when they will actually be enrolled in Obamacare.

“We’re disappointed that everything isn’t locked and ready to go, but I don’t think this is a big deal,” said 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. For example, 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 has decided to hold off on making such determinations until November, when officials feel the information will be more accurate.

Obamacare opponents are 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,” said Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business. “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.”

Juliet Eilperin and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.



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