Report: Little interest in Obamacare’s small business site

When Healthcare.gov debuted in October of 2013, the website experienced so many problems for individuals shopping for Affordable Care Act-related insurance plans that an aspect of that site geared toward small businesses was simply shelved. That element of the site called the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) recently reopened with little fanfare and even less general interest, according to The Washington Post. The paper’s investigation has revealed that the federal government’s small business insurance site is experiencing myriad technical flaws and scant attention from those whom it was intended to serve.

Insurance brokers are, at times, having trouble getting into their accounts and, in scattered cases, are not showing up in the computer system’s lists of local insurance professionals available to coach small businesses. More broadly, interviews with brokers and others suggest that, in the two weeks since the marketplace’s health plans went on sale for 2015, interest within the niche they are intended to help seems scant.

During the first week, that part of HealthCare.gov drew 200,000 visits, compared with more than 1.5 million people who looked at the Web site’s health plans for individuals, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the branch of the Department of Health and Human Services overseeing the ¬online insurance marketplaces. CMS officials would not provide figures on how many small businesses in that first week decided to offer workers coverage through the health plans created for them — or how many workers, in turn, have bought it.

The Post noted that some of the tepid interest in the program could be attributable to the fact that small businesses only qualify for tax credits if they have 25 or fewer employees, specific salary levels for those employees, and a series of other elements which make enrollment less attractive. Even if businesses do qualify for those tax credits, they would only last for two years.

In February, the mandate for medium-sized businesses with 50 to 99 employees to offer their employees health insurance employer-provided insurance was delayed until 2016. That mandate for those firms, estimated to employ nearly seven in 10 American workers, was originally scheduled to be implemented this year. Larger employers were informed that they could avoid being fined if they only offered at least 70 percent of their employees insurance by 2015.

This latest let down for Obamacare supporters comes after the Affordable Care Act endured a rough week in the press when it was revealed that administrators counted as many as 400,000 dental plans associated with Obamacare as full ACA enrollees in order to push total enrollment figures above 7 million. This came less than a month after total Obamacare enrollment was revised down from 8 million and after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that interest in enrollment in 2015 would decline significantly. Instead of nearly 6 million new ACA beneficiaries, the CBO predicted that Obamacare would attract fewer than 3 million.

The ACA’s stewards in the federal government have taken to spending much of their time justifying their jobs and the program’s existence. “Administration officials have been working lately to pump up interest in these health plans,” The Post reported. “In late October, the White House hosted insurance brokers specializing in small-business customers for a demonstration and a pep talk. And federal health officials this fall allowed brokers and small employers in five states an early peek at that part of the site to drum up interest and check how well it was working.”

Even if there is no great clamor for government-provided health insurance as Americans were told in 2009 and 2010, Obamacare supporters do have some qualified good news to celebrate following the first weeks of the program’s second open enrollment period. On a call with reporters last week, Health and Human Services Sec. Sylvia Burwell crowed over the addition of over 462,000 new ACA enrollees in the first week of open enrollment, 48 percent of which were new enrollees.

3.7 million users visited the site, the secretary said, and over 1 million insurance applications were submitted. She added that the site experienced no outages in this week even at its peak in which 55,000 users were on the site concurrently. Healthcare.gov was designed, Burwell added, to handle as many as 250,000 users at one time.

That figure may be cold comfort for many. While the problems associated with the individual market insurance site may have been worked out, the problems with the site designed to service the bulk of Americans employed at small businesses are only beginning.