The Obama administration on Wednesday announced yet another major delay in the implementation of its problem-plagued health insurance website, this time postponing for a year a sign-up feature for small businesses. This comes just days before the White House's self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for eliminating many of the technical problems that have paralyzed HealthCare.gov.
The website's Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) enrollment application, which was created to make it easier for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees to sign up for health coverage through the federal exchange, will not be ready until next November, the White House said Wednesday.
In the meantime, administration officials are instructing small businesses to bypass the website and apply to the SHOP marketplace (and thus still possibly qualify for an enhanced Obamacare tax credit) using paper applications or enrolling through brokers or directly through insurers. Other alternatives that might work better for some businesses include self-funding and the so-called "skinny" option.
"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," administration officials said in a statement..
The SHOP application had previously been delayed just days before the website's launch on Oct. 1 so the administration could focus on getting the individual insurance marketplace ready to go live. At the time, the administration officials assured small businesses that their marketplace would be ready by November. But now they will have to wait another year.
And that's not all. The White House also announced that the Spanish-language component of HealthCare.gov, which has already been delayed several times, will also not be ready to meet its deadline of Nov. 30, despite assurances from the administration.
The latest delays are yet another public relations headache for the White House -; which has spent the last two months defending the president's signature health care law amid low early enrollment numbers, millions of cancelled insurance policies and persistent technological problems with the website.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were quick to jump on the latest announcement. "With each passing day, it's clear how much worse Obamacare is than a website full of glitches," Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus said in a statement.
Because of the website problems, some Democrats have even joined Republicans in urging the administration to delay the individual mandate requiring uninsured Americans to enroll in the exchanges or pay a penalty.
Just last week, amid growing political pressure, the administration extended the enrollment deadline by eight days. Now, uninsured Americans have until Dec. 23 to sign up for coverage through the exchanges in order to have health insurance on Jan 1. Unless the website truly starts working for the "vast majority of users" after Nov. 30, as the White House has promised, those Americans may have problems signing up.
Administration officials are already ramping down expectations, just days before the deadline, emphasizing that the website "still won't be perfect."
"Nov. 30 is not a magical date," CMS communications director Julie Bataille told reporters on a Wednesday press call. "There are times when the site, like any website, will not perform optimally."