(Updates throughout with fresh quotes, details and background)
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON Nov 27 The Obama administration on
Wednesday postponed online health insurance enrollment for small
businesses under Obamacare for one year, a move quickly seized
upon by critics as proof the healthcare reform law should be
delayed or replaced.
The announcement affecting businesses with 50 or fewer
workers was the latest in a series of delays that have
diminished the scope of President Barack Obama's landmark
healthcare law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Administration officials said the delay stemmed from the
need to focus on fixing HealthCare.gov by a Saturday deadline
for having the enrollment website working smoothly for most
visitors from the 36 states it serves.
The online market portal has been hobbled by technical
problems since its launch on Oct. 1, frustrating millions of
Americans seeking information on new individual health coverage
required under the law.
"It was important for us to prioritize the functionality
that would enable consumers individually to shop and enroll
online in coverage," said Julie Bataille, communications
director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
(CMS), the federal agency responsible for the Obamacare
Online enrollment for small businesses was originally
expected to be available on Oct. 1. Administration officials say
they now plan to offer web-based enrollment services by November
Republicans, who want to repeal or fundamentally alter the
law, pounced on the fact that the announcement came on the eve
of the Thanksgiving Day holiday when many Americans are
distracted by travel and family activities. Last summer, the
administration delayed the law's coverage mandate for larger
businesses just before the July 4 Independence Day holiday.
"The administration is doing its best to bury the latest
confirmation that this law was not ready for prime time,"
Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and
Commerce Committee, said in a statement.
The National Federation of Independent Business, a trade
group that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Obamacare in
2012, blasted the announcement as a new burden for employers.
"It probably matters little to people in Washington that the
failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet
another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators," the
Employers seeking coverage through the federal Small
Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, marketplace will be
able to enroll off-line through insurance companies, agents and
brokers, the administration said. Until now, SHOP enrollment had
been available only through paper applications.
Administration officials said insurance agents and brokers
already serve many small businesses, so the avenue should be
familiar to those who want Obamacare coverage for their
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not required to
offer insurance to their workers and have a one-year enrollment
period, versus six months for individuals.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and
Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg, David
Brunnstrom and Philip Barbara)