Some companies with payrolls near the 50-worker cutoff point said they would consider eliminating jobs or switching some full-time workers to part-time status to avoid having to offer insurance coverage, The New York Times reported.
Several observers speculated that the delay could threaten the ultimate goal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act -- to offer insurance coverage to an estimated 30 million Americans who currently don't have it.
"I am utterly astounded," Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University and a supporter of the law, told the Times. "It boggles the mind. This step could significantly reduce the number of uninsured people who will gain coverage in 2014."
The hospital industry deemed the announcement "troubling" for people who will not get job-based coverage next year. "The goal of the ACA [Affordable Care Act] was to extend coverage to the uninsured, which required a shared responsibility from all stakeholders," Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said in a statement. "We are concerned that the delay further erodes the coverage that was envisioned as part of the ACA," he said.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, sought to downplay such concerns. "We are full-steam ahead for the marketplaces opening on October 1," she wrote on her White House blog Tuesday evening.
The marketplaces Jarrett referred to are another key component of the Affordable Care Act -- so-called health insurance exchanges where consumers can purchase coverage.
The state-based insurance exchanges are supposed to operate a website where uninsured residents of the state and small employers can compare various health-plan options offered by insurance companies, much in the same way that consumers shop online for hotel rooms and airplane tickets that suit them best.
Tuesday's announcement of the delay in implementing employer insurance coverage does not affect the central provision of the Affordable Care Act -- that most Americans carry health insurance or face a fine in the form of a tax penalty. This so-called "individual mandate" was upheld as constitutional last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.