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California's Small Business Health Insurance Exchange Off To Slow Start

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Anna Gorman

Mon, May 05 2014

California’s insurance marketplace for small businesses has attracted just a fraction of eligible companies, with most being deterred by technology glitches, paperwork delays and customer service problems.

The program, designed to make insurance more affordable and easier to purchase for small businesses, has only attracted about 1,200 companies. There are roughly 700,000 small businesses in the state, and more than half could be eligible for tax credits under the health law, according to the Small Business Majority, a national organization of small businesses.

Companies said Covered California, the state-based exchange, has primarily focused on individual patient enrollment to the detriment of the small business marketplace, known as the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP.

“The SHOP program has kind of taken a backseat,” said John Kabateck, the California executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “There wasn’t an intent to ignore small businesses. That just didn’t become a priority.”

There is currently no way to enroll online and applications take weeks or months to process, business groups said.

“We were hoping it would be easier, faster, more streamlined,” said David Chase, the California director of Small Business Majority. “We are hoping that Covered California can put some much overdue attention on these issues.”

California opened its small business exchange in October and began offering online enrollment in November. But in February,  after applicants ran into such glitches as error messages or delays in loading pages and some applications came in incomplete,  the exchange suspended Internet sign-ups to create a new version of the online portal and instructed businesses and their brokers to enroll for now with traditional paper applications. The new version is expected to be up again in the fall and include improvements such as more efficient service and a better way to determine eligibility for the program.

The launch of the small business marketplace was “not really successful,” said Micah Weinberg, a senior policy advisor at the Bay Area Council, an employer-backed public policy organization. “Now they have gone back to the drawing board,” he said.

The problems may seem to echo those that surfaced during infamous launch of the individual marketplaces around the country, which was characterized by technical failures and intermittent shutdowns.  But at least in the case of Covered California, officials were able to continue enrolling consumers online and the problems were fixed within a few months, Weinberg said. The more complicated business exchange, on the other hand, had much more significant problems that required starting from scratch, he said.

Covered California spokeswoman Anne Gonzales said the exchange has been “challenged by some complex system issues.”

“Understandably, Covered California was focusing a lot of time and resources on getting our individual market up and running,” she said. Now that the individual market has closed, she said, “SHOP is going to be a primary focus.”

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