By Jonathan Easley - 01/30/14 08:30 AM EST
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is expecting only modest enrollment figures in the ObamaCare small-business program for 2014.
Companies with fewer than 50 employees were slated to begin buying coverage through the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), an online ObamaCare exchange, in December.
But in late November, the White House pushed back the launch date for the exchange by one year, so it could focus on getting the online exchange for individuals up and running.
HealthCare.gov is now running smoothly and logging impressive enrollment figures, but the CMS doesn’t have an update on when SHOP might be available to small businesses and their employees.
Republicans are getting antsy.
On Thursday, the chairman of the House Small Business Committee sent a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius seeking a status update and enrollment figures on the exchange.
“I continue to be concerned about the many ongoing misinformation, problems, and delays that are affecting small business owners as the healthcare law is implemented,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said in the letter.
Graves requested a response by Feb. 7.
A CMS official told The Hill the agency doesn’t anticipate having enrollment data until later this year. Since the online portal hasn’t launched, CMS can’t generate the enrollment data but rather will have to collect it from the insurers through a process that is still being finalized.
“The administration touted the SHOPs as a competitive marketplace for small business owners to purchase insurance,” Graves continued. “However, since the law was implemented, some small business owners have been notified that their plans are being cancelled, and many now face sharply higher premiums for existing policies. Others, expecting more affordable coverage on the SHOPs, have instead found those plans have higher premiums, higher deductibles, and less comprehensive coverage.”
The CMS has argued that since small businesses can still seek out coverage through an agent or broker, the disruption would be small, because employers are already familiar with the process.
The CMS also says employers would be able to determine their eligibility for tax credits, a core feature of the delayed online federal exchange, through the workaround.
There’s still a chance that SHOP enrollment could pick up. Unlike the individual exchanges, there is no fixed enrollment period, so small businesses can enroll their employees throughout the year.
The healthcare law established new insurance marketplaces, referred to as SHOP exchanges, where small businesses can compare and purchase insurance plans.
It allows small businesses to either offer a single plan to all of their workers, or pick a certain benefit level and let workers choose among plans at that level.
The HHS delayed the latter option last year, saying it's too complicated for insurers to implement right away. Workers will still not be able to choose from an employer-approved benefit level of plans during the one-year delay.
Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees — which CMS estimates is 96 percent of all firms — are exempt from the employer responsibility requirements, and free to have their employees seek coverage on the individual markets.