WEDNESDAY, Nov. 27, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The federal health agency responsible for HealthCare.gov on Wednesday announced that small businesses cannot use the website to enroll their workers in health plans until November 2014.
The delay affects small businesses in the 36 states where the federal government operates health exchanges.
It is the latest in a string of delays for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), initially set to take effect in October.
The latest setback for HealthCare.gov, the gateway for millions of Americans to access health insurance coverage, comes as a technical team works through the Thanksgiving holiday to meet a Nov. 30 deadline for improving the beleaguered website.
Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the SHOP delay comes as the information technology team to works to improve website capacity and functionality for individual consumers to buy health insurance coverage.
"It was important for us to prioritize the functionality that would enable consumers individually to shop and enroll online in coverage," Bataille said.
Today, the website can comfortably handle some 25,000 simultaneous users, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But the worry is that as the open-enrollment deadline approaches, the site will experience periods of high volume. CMS intends to double site capacity -- to 50,000 users -- by Saturday.
The administration remains "on track" to have the site working smoothly for most users by the end of November, she said.
The federal government's rollout of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1 was intended to make it easy for individuals and families to compare health plan options and shop for coverage, and help small businesses make health insurance available to their workers. But the rocky launch forced President Barack Obama and his administration to delay certain provisions of the health reform law known as the Affordable Care Act, including online shopping for small businesses.
Bataille said, however, that small businesses may still enroll directly in a health plan through an insurer, agent or broker, and can get certified for a tax credit after they enroll.
"Although online enrollment will only be available in November 2014, we expect that making direct enrollment, tax-credit applications and comparison shopping easier will help to ensure that small businesses can take full advantage of the marketplace and tax credits worth up to 50 percent of employer-paid premiums," she said.
"This new delay announcement is a disappointment but not a surprise," Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said in a prepared statement.
"Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process," he said. "It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators."
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has tools and information to help consumers understand the Affordable Care Act.
SOURCE: Nov. 27, 2013, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services press conference with Julie Bataille, director, Office of Communications; Nov. 27, 2013, statement from Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs, National Federal of Independent Business, Washington, D.C.
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