Are The Small Business Health Exchanges Ready Yet? Will They Ever Be?
Oh no, not again. With the announcement last week of another delay in Healthcare.gov’s Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, exchange, is it time to start really worrying?
Here’s how we got to this place: In late September, the Department of Health and Human Services broke the news that while small employers could use the federal healthcare exchange website to compare plan options, create an account, and download a paper application starting October 1, they wouldn’t be able to actually enroll online until November 1.
Last week Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is in charge of the troubled online exchange, kicked the can a little further down the road, during a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. Asked if the SHOP site would be fully functional during November, Tavenner replied, “Yes we will institute the SHOP component at the end of November.”
The current language at Healthcare.gov seems slightly more optimistic. After you mail in your SHOP marketplace application, the site explains, “By mid-November, we’ll let you know if your company is eligible to participate in SHOP.” If you are, “you’ll be able to log in to your online Marketplace account to finish the enrollment process.” After selecting the plans you like, the site says, your employees will be able to review them and decide if they want to sign up. Finally, when you’ve determined who wants in, you can submit your online application and your first month’s premium payment online.
That last bit, about online enrollment, may be a tad optimistic. An agent at the official SHOP help line told me this: “There is no set date yet for online enrollment.” For now, you have to complete the entire process by old-fashioned snail mail.
Note that all of the above applies only to plans in the 36 states that are being administered through the federal Healthcare.gov site; states running their own exchanges are in different states of readiness (or unreadiness) for online applications.
As long as your application is submitted by December 15, you should be able to get coverage starting as soon as January 1.
So back to that question I asked at the outset: How much should you be worrying? Not too much, says Gary Claxton, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “I don’t think it affects the small-group market very much at all," Claxton told me. "Small employers already have pretty good access to brokers and insurers. Very few would get tax credits, and frankly those with low-wage workers would be more likely to send employees to the individual exchange where there are better incentives.”
Got questions? Of course you do. You can call the official SHOP help line, 1-800-706-7893 (closed Thanksgiving Day and the day after), work through a registered agent or broker (at no additional cost), or find help locally using LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.