A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov insurance portal. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)

Companies in five states will next month gain early access to the federal government’s online health insurance portal for small businesses, where employers will finally be able to shop for and purchase plans over the Internet, a federal health official tells The Washington Post.

Small employers in Delaware, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and New Jersey will in late October be the first ones permitted to create a business account on Healthcare.gov, select an agent or broker, check their eligibility for plans and upload their employee information. Starting in November, plan details and prices will become available on the federally facilitated small-business portal, abbreviated FF-SHOP, giving firms in those states a head start on enrollment for 2015 insurance plans.

The remaining states that elected not to build and run their own health insurance exchanges, thus defaulting to the federal site, will get access to the revamped small business marketplace on Nov. 15. Due to a series of delays, this will be the first time employers in most states can sign up and pay for plans through Healthcare.gov.

The move is part of an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services — which has overseen the bumpy rollout of the online exchanges for both individuals and employers — to gradually introduce new features, allowing the agency to solicit feedback and avoid major setbacks.

“We are focused on implementing the FF-SHOP Marketplace in a way that best serves the interests of small employers and their employees by utilizing the lessons of the first year of Federally-facilitated Marketplace implementation,” Ben Wakana, an HHS spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “This includes providing FF-SHOP Early Access in a few states before fully launching online functionality.”

Officials say they selected the five early-access states by analyzing existing insurance markets and seeking those that have an established network of engaged stakeholders. HHS plans to use feedback it receives from small businesses, insurers and public officials in those five states to improve the national rollout in mid-November.

It’s been a somewhat rocky start for the federal government’s online insurance exchange for small businesses.

In the months leading up to the much-anticipated kickoff last fall, the Obama administration first pushed back for a year a cost-cutting feature allowing employees of the same company to choose from multiple plans. Officials then delayed for one month the ability for small firms using the federal SHOP to enroll in and pay for plans online.

One month later, that second delay was extended for an additional year, leaving employers to apply for coverage via paper applications until this coming November. In March, HHS officials offered states another year to implement that previously delayed “employee-choice” feature, which means small employers in many states can still choose only one plan to cover all of their workers. Choosing multiple plans was meant to give firms more flexibility and create more competition to hold down costs.

It’s impossible to tell how many small firms have purchased plans through through paper applications, as officials have been mum on enrollment figures for the federal small business portal. However, if the state-run employer exchanges are any indication, as some have suggested, the numbers are expected to be quite low.

Once the site is fully functional, though, HHS officials expect enrollment to steadily increase, noting that the online enrollment feature and new tax credits will make buying health insurance easier and cheaper for many small businesses.

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