The news of a year-long delay in online access to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) was buried in the 19th paragraph of a press release issued late in the afternoon the day before Thanksgiving.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announcement said small business owners would be able to use the Healthcare.gov website to buy health insurance for their employees starting in November 2014, more than a year later than planned.
In the meantime, HHS is rebranding its website work-around as “direct enrollment.” Essentially that means purchasing insurance as small business owners always have—through insurance brokers or agents or directly through insurance companies.
Note: The ACA does not require small employers—those with fewer than 50 full-time employees—to provide health benefits. However, those that do are eligible for small business tax credits worth up to 50% of employer-paid premium costs.
Under direct enrollment, a broker, agent or carrier will enroll employees. Then federal officials will review the applications to determine “whether your business and employees are eligible for SHOP coverage,” the HHS announcement said.
What that means: Small employers won’t know until after enrollment whether they will qualify for the tax credits.
Practical matters: Employers can sign up for SHOP-eligible coverage at any time during the year. Those that want coverage to begin on Jan. 1, 2014 have until Dec. 23 to enroll.
General information on SHOP remains available on Healthcare.gov, although HHS said comparing plans won’t be possible until “this winter.”