Small Business Health Plan Website Delayed Until November 2014

UPDATE: The process really won’t get better anytime soon. Politico reports that the federally-run SHOP Marketplace website will be delayed until November 2014:

“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,” according to an HHS notice issued a day before the long Thanksgiving weekend. Those features give workers more choice of health plans, rather than having the business owner choose it.

The administration originally delayed online enrollment in the federal-run small business exchanges just days before the failed Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov. At the time, HHS said online enrollment would be available “sometime in November.” Weeks ago, administration officials said online enrollment would be ready by the end of this November.

In a blog post, the Department of Health and Human Services explains how small businesses can buy health plans for their employees without a functioning website:

For small businesses in states with a SHOP Marketplace that’s run by the federal government, we are making changes to make sure that you can take advantage of SHOP coverage and the tax credit as soon as  possible. Specifically, for 2014, small employers will enroll their employees in coverage through an agent, broker, or insurer that offers a certified SHOP plan and has agreed to conduct enrollment according to HHS standards.

This process, called “direct enrollment,” is similar to how most small employers get insurance today. You don’t need to apply for SHOP eligibility before enrolling, or to use HealthCare.gov, unless you’d like to see information on your plan options, including which insurance companies offer SHOP Qualified Health Plans in your area.

The post also notes that the enrollment period to begin coverage on January 1, 2014 has been extended to December 23.

Following up on yesterday’s post on the federal SHOP Marketplace exchange website being little help to small businesses who want to buy health plans, I mentioned that companies can apply by mail or fax. Bloomberg Businessweek’s John Tozzi described the cumbersome process:

Companies with up to 50 employees can browse plans on healthcare.gov, starting on this page. (The government also offers this rather cumbersome, embedded spreadsheet of approximately 45,000 health plans offered across the country—have at it, Excel jockies.) The quotes here are sample premiums for individuals (ages 27 or 50) or for different arrangements of family coverage. There’s no place—that I could find, anyway—to get a single quote that includes some employees on family plans and some on individual coverage.

Actually applying for small business coverage on healthcare.gov right now requires both online and offline steps. Employers must set up an online account, then download a PDF application. After filling out the application (possibly with the help of a broker), business owners must print it out and mail it to London, Ky., where the paperwork is being processed manually. After that, the Health and Human Services Department is supposed to contact employers and confirm that they’re eligible. Then the company can select plans and offer employees coverage. After workers decide whether or not to enroll, companies can finally submit their application online and pay for the first month of their policies. Got it?

Tozzi doesn’t expect this to get better anytime soon:

“We are exploring options to ensure that small businesses have access to coverage in the SHOP marketplace. We are continuing to do an assessment of that work, and we’ll have a process in place by the end of this month,” HHS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said on a conference call with reporters Monday, according to a transcript provided by the agency. She wouldn’t comment on when online enrollment would be working, but she said details on an “enhanced process” would be coming “soon.”

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