By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Sept 26 The U.S. government on
Thursday announced new delays in rolling out President Barack
Obama's healthcare reform, saying small business and
Spanish-language health insurance enrollment services would not
begin on Oct. 1 as planned.
The postponements amount to a few weeks out of a months-long
enrollment period aimed at signing up millions of uninsured
Americans for health benefits. But they add to expectations of a
slow start to the landmark social program which remains under
attack by Republican leaders and faces formidable technical
hurdles for states and the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said
employers with 50 or fewer workers will not be able to sign
their staff up for private insurance in federally operated
exchanges until a month later, Nov. 1, because of technical
The White House also said online Spanish-language enrollment
for Hispanics, an important Obama constituency who make up about
one-third of the 47 million uninsured in the country, will also
not be available until sometime between Oct. 21 and Oct. 28.
Spanish speakers will still be able to enroll through a call
center or enrollment specialists known as "navigators."
Administration officials did not explain the nature of the
technical problems, but they emphasized that full online
enrollment for other individuals will be available on Oct. 1
under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly
known as Obamacare.
The news comes as Obama and fellow Democrats are trying to
stave off Republican attempts to delay the healthcare reform's
launch with the threat of shutting down the federal government
or risking a U.S. default on its credit.
"The Affordable Care Act is here to stay," Obama said in a
feisty speech at a Washington-area college shortly before word
of the new delays surfaced. He described the Republican strategy
on Obamacare as, "'We've got to shut this thing down before
people find out that they like it.'"
Republicans seized on news of the latest delay.
"This law is a disaster. But the exchanges -- the heart of
the law -- are supposed to go live in just five days? Give me a
break," said Senator Orrin Hatch, top Republican on the Senate
"This law will never be ready for prime time, because this
is what happens when Washington takes over healthcare," he said.
BUMPS AND GLITCHES
The Obamacare roll-out has required the creation of a
massive information technology (IT) infrastructure to allow
federal agencies, individual U.S. states and insurance companies
to process applications for health coverage and determine
subsidies for eligible Americans. The administration is counting
on signing up 7 million people via the exchanges in their first
Earlier this month, health insurers complained of problems
displaying basic information about the plans they will sell on
federally run exchanges in 36 states. Among states that will run
their own exchanges, Colorado, Oregon and the District of
Columbia pared back their launches to address technical
"I would imagine that the most critical defects are on the
way to correction," said Rick Howard, a research director at
technology consultant Gartner and an expert on public-sector IT,
referring to the small business enrollment delay. "But it's
going to be a rough ride."
The administration sought to play down the delays on
Thursday, saying that new healthcare benefits for the uninsured
would still begin on Jan. 1, giving businesses two months to
enroll for early coverage.
The enrollment period for small business is 12 months, and
officials said small businesses would be able to shop for
coverage, fill out paper insurance applications or discuss their
options with call center staff beginning next week.
"As promised, people will be able to see what's in the
marketplace, how to look at coverage, ask questions about
whether or not this is good for their employees, find out about
the tax credit then beginning November 1st, do the online
enrollment," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen
Sebelius said in an interview with cable-TV channel MSNBC.
It was the second Small Business Health Options Program
(SHOP) delay for the administration, which postponed a provision
to provide employees with a menu of healthcare options earlier
A statement by HHS on Thursday focused on a ramp-up in
government education and outreach efforts toward small
businesses. Only in the 8th paragraph did the document mention
in passing that "all functions" in the SHOP exchanges will be
available in November.
The White House said the delay in Spanish-language online
enrollment would provide "an opportunity" to build Obamacare
awareness in the Hispanic community.
But Hispanic community representatives expressed concern.
"This type of delay can undermine enrollment efforts, so we
think they need to do everything in their power to get this up
and running as soon as possible," said Jennifer Ng'andu,
director of health and civil rights policy at the National
Council of La Raza.
"There's been such a fever pitch around Oct. 1 that we don't
want people walking away thinking there's nothing for them."
While Obamacare's foes in Washington pressed for delay of
the entire law, members of the business community sounded a more
"This is a huge undertaking and Oct. 1 is not the only
opportunity for small businesses to enroll. The glitches will
come and we hope they will be speedily resolved. But in the
meantime I don't have the sense that small businesses were lined
up at the gates waiting to get in," said Neil Trautwein,
healthcare lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.
John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the Small Business
Majority, said Obamacare would bring major change to the U.S.
healthcare system "so having a month delay is not a huge issue
in the greater scheme of things."
Caroline Pearson of the healthcare consulting firm Avalere
said SHOP exchanges are expected to have only limited enrollment
because their value to business remains unclear.