Small businesses won't be able to use the federal government's health-insurance website until November 2014 in most states, the latest delay in the Obama administration’s healthcare system overhaul.
Businesses can use brokers or enroll directly with insurers in the meantime, said officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who asked not to be identified because the decision isn't public.
The change applies to 36 states where the federal government is running insurance exchanges.
The exchanges for small businesses, available for companies with 50 or fewer full-time workers, had already been delayed from a scheduled Oct. 1 start. The National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group that represents small companies, said the latest delay isn't building confidence in the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process," said Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs for the Nashville, Tenn.-based group. "The failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators."
Reaction to the delay was swift and strong from Republicans leaders, who again called on the president to repeal the damaged law and start over.
"The president bit off more than he can chew with this healthcare law, and small businesses are now forced to bear the consequences," House Speaker John Boehner said.
"Business owners across this country are already having health care plans for their employees canceled by this law, and now they're told they won't have access to the system the president promised them to find them different coverage."
Said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "For senators looking to absolve themselves of past Obamacare mistakes, there is only one escape: it begins with repealing Obamacare, and it ends with working together on bipartisan reforms that can actually work."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor rapped the administration for announcing the delay the afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday, "hoping nobody will notice."
"These are hardly the actions of a transparent administration," he said.
"The President's latest one-year delay is another sign that Obamacare's issues run much deeper than a failing website," Cantor said. "The delay is also a reminder of the terrible harm Obamacare will inflict on small businesses, costing jobs and economic growth."
Businesses will still be able to shop for plans at the federal website HealthCare.gov beginning in December; they just won't be able to sign up their employees using the system.
"While we're disappointed that the ability to enroll online on the HealthCare.gov website has been pushed back for small employers, starting in December HealthCare.gov will offer small businesses a better comparison shopping experience," Joshua Welter, a spokesman for the Main Street Alliance, a small-business advocacy group, said in an email.
The administration already had delayed other aspects of the Obamacare enrollment
The White House in July delayed a requirement that medium and large companies provide coverage for their workers or face heavy fines.
Earlier this month, the administration announced that the second-year start of Obamacare enrollment, previously scheduled to begin Oct. 15, 2014, will now start Nov. 15, 2014.
House Small Business Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., said it's been apparent for months that the small-business enrollment website wasn't ready to launch.
"Based on the June GAO report on SHOPs readiness that I requested, we knew the administration was not prepared for the implementation, but this pattern of continued delay and disarray is especially disappointing," Graves said, according to Politico. "This mismanagement and inadequacy is causing the American people and small-business owners to lose trust in their government's ability to do just about anything."
Beginning next year, small businesses with fewer than 25 workers can obtain a tax credit for as much as 50 percent of the cost of insurance for their workforce, up from 35 percent now.
The Government Accountability Office has said the tax credit has been underused, and small-business groups have complained it isn't easy to apply for the assistance.
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