The Obama administration last week announced a one-year delay for some small businesses planning to buy health insurance coverage online for their employees. In the meantime, instead of applying for policies via the problem-plagued government website, Healthcare.gov, small businesses and their employees are being encouraged to sign up through insurers, agents, or brokers.
According to The New York Times, officials explain that “they had to focus on the basic functions of the website, so that individuals could shop for insurance, before offering online enrollment for small businesses.”
The delay — the second to date for small-business enrollment — covers small businesses in states where the federal government runs a health insurance marketplace. The online-enrollment period has been extended to November 2014 for coverage slated to take effect in January 2015.
Direct Enrollment for Small Businesses
Brokers, agents, and insurers may assist employers in filling out paper enrollment forms for the Small Business Health Options Program and in submitting these applications to the SHOP Marketplace. The offline option has been available to small businesses since Oct. 1.
Using this “direct enrollment” approach, businesses “enroll their employees in coverage through an agent, broker, or insurer that offers a certified SHOP plan, the same way most businesses get coverage today,” a Department of Health and Human Services official tells Yahoo News.
An HHS notice posted Nov. 27 on Healthcare.gov adds, “We’ve concluded that we can best serve small employers by continuing this offline process while we concentrate on both creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace, and adding key new features, including an employee choice option and premium aggregation services, by November 2014.”
The new features are designed to offer a broader choice of health plans to employees rather than require that business owners select coverage for them.
Ongoing Changes to the Affordable Care Act
The latest policy changes reinforce the notion that small businesses must stay abreast of ongoing changes to the federal health care regulations. In addition to watching the news, it’s a good idea to set up a quarterly reminder on your calendar to check for new developments that may affect your business.
Although small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees are not legally required to offer health insurance coverage to their employees under the Affordable Care Act, a system of tax credits [PDF] and other incentives aims to make doing so more appealing. (You will not be penalized for noncompliance.)
A helpful and fairly comprehensive guide to small-business obligations under the Affordable Care Act is available from the NFIB Healthcare Resource Center.