The federal insurance exchange's one-year delay in online enrollment for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) is not stopping small employers from getting coverage for their employees, Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at the CMS
told lawmakers Wednesday. But he did not provide any data on how many companies have signed their employees up for coverage.
The House Small Business Committee held the hearing on the electronic enrollment delay because of concerns that the administration's decision undermined the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's
goal of simplifying the purchase of affordable employer-sponsored health insurance. Republicans on the committee argued that not launching online enrollment on Oct. 1 in the 36 states served by the federal exchange
calls into the question the eventual usefulness SHOP will have as a tool for small companies.
A number of the states running their own insurance exchanges
, including California and New York, already are offering online SHOP enrollment. So far, more than 1,500 small employers reportedly have begun the enrollment process through the California exchange.
“The implementation of the (SHOP provision) has become a game of hide and seek,” committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said during the hearing.
The Obama administration announced Nov. 27 that online enrollment in the federal SHOP exchange would not occur until November 2014. The decision most affected small business owners in the 36 states that are relying on the federal HealthCare.gov marketplace.
During this delay, companies are still able to compare health insurance
premium costs and plans on the SHOP exchange website, just not actually enroll their employees online. To sign up, they will need to go through a broker, agent or the insurer directly. Many of the more than 70,000 agents and brokers trained to assist consumers in the federal marketplace have completed the SHOP-specific course, Cohen said.
Businesses with fewer than 25 employees that purchase a SHOP-qualified plan may be eligible for tax credits that will cover up to 50% of employer-paid insurance premiums starting in 2014. Businesses with up to 50 full-time employees are eligible to buy coverage through the SHOP exchanges. There is no enrollment deadline.
The CMS has not studied how many companies may lose out on the credits as a result of delaying online SHOP enrollment, Cohen said. He added that insurers are now sending the agency enrollment data on how many companies are signing up for SHOP plans through the alternative channels. The agency plans to compile the data and release a report.
Cohen also clarified the timeline of when the administration knew it would have to delay its plans for online enrollment.
“We pushed hard to get everything ready and it became clear sometime in September that we were not going to make it” before Oct. 1, Cohen said.
No detailed account of specific technical shortcomings causing the delay was discussed during the hearing. Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson