The Obama administration said Wednesday it is delaying another part of the president's new health care law, saying that the online portal for small businesses to shop for plans through the federal health exchanges won't be ready for another year.
While administration officials said small businesses still have other avenues to shop for policies, Republican critics said the delay — announced as most of official Washington had shut down for Thanksgiving — is the latest sign President Obama's signature achievement should be scrapped altogether.
"The president bit off more than he can chew with this health care law, and small businesses are now forced to bear the consequences," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said.
The Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, was supposed to be an immediate boon for small business, which had little clout in the insurance world and could take advantage of tax credits under the health care law to defray the cost of premiums. Instead, it is another victim of the flawed debut of online insurance markets.
Officials are still rushing to try to fix problems with the HealthCare.gov website, used by individuals in 36 states that opted not to set up their own health exchanges under Obamacare. Officials are hoping to have the website working for the "vast majority" of users in the individual market by this weekend — though they are also warning users not to flood the system for fear it could, once again, get overloaded.
In the case of SHOP, the administration said that online tool won't be ready until November 2014. Department of Health and Human Services officials said they are still allowing enrollment through agents, brokers and insurers in the federal marketplace.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which are not required to offer coverage under the Affordable Care Act, can compare plans online starting Dec. 1, even if they have to rely on non-Internet applications to qualify for tax credits and gain coverage for employees, officials said.
"This allows small employers to sign up for coverage through off-line enrollment while [the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services] works on creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace," an agency official said.
CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said that for small businesses, working with brokers and agents is "something they're already very familiar with doing."
The Small Business Majority, an advocacy group, tried to stay upbeat about the development.
"It's disappointing that the online portion of the federal small-business marketplace through Healthcare.gov will be delayed and it's important it get up and running as soon as possible," founder and CEO John Arensmeyer said. "However, it doesn't change the fact that the marketplace can offer the most competitive combination of price and quality for small businesses purchasing health insurance."
Meanwhile state-run exchanges such as the D.C. version, through which members of Congress must sign up for coverage, have reported that their SHOPs are running just fine.
Republican critics of the law already are comparing the pre-holiday announcement to the White House's decision July 2 to delay for one year the employer mandate requiring larger companies to offer insurance.
The administration announced that decision in a blog post while people prepared for a long holiday weekend.
"Just as it did over July 4 while we celebrated our independence, today the administration is doing its best to bury the latest confirmation that this law was not ready for prime time," said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The administration has shifted multiple deadlines of late, notably allowing consumers to sign up for coverage until Dec. 23 — instead of Dec. 15 — to gain coverage in time for January.
It also pushed back the start of individual enrollment for 2014 from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15, or after the midterm elections.
Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri Republican and chairman of the House Small Business Committee, said that "another last-minute delay is just more proof that the law is unworkable and beyond the capabilities of the administration.
"If small firms failed to provide services this frequently, they would be fired," he said.
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