WASHINGTON — Small businesses will not be able to enroll online in the new health insurance exchanges until November 2014, the Obama administration announced Wednesday.
Online enrollment was originally slated to begin this month. However, businesses may continue to sign up for the Small Business Health Options Program through paper applications, as they have been since Oct. 1, said Julie Bataille, director of the Office of Communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
They will also be able to enroll using agents and brokers or directly through an insurer.
"Many of them today are already served by using agents and brokers," Bataille said.
She also said tax credits would be applied when businesses turned in their taxes.
The announcement immediately drew outcry from Republicans, who said the delay was a sign that the website is still not up to par.
"With each passing day, it's clear how much worse ObamaCare is than a website full of glitches," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a statement. He called for the whole program to be scrapped. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner issued similar statements.
Bataille said the delay isn't an indictment of Healthcare.gov.
"The website is working already," she said. "Consumers every day are shopping and enrolling in coverage."
By this weekend, the website is expected to handle 800,000 people a day "smoothly," officials have said.
Business groups also expressed concern about the SHOP delay.
Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs for National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative lobbying organization, said the announcement showed the administration doesn't care about small business.
"It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators," he said. "The continued delays add to uncertainty and contribute to the decision of many owners to take early renewals of their small-group plans."
But the Main Street Alliance, a more liberal national small business association, saw the option to enroll directly with insurers as a plus.
"While we're disappointed that the ability to enroll online on the Healthcare.gov website has been pushed back for small employers, starting in December Healthcare.gov will offer small businesses a better comparison shopping experience," reads a statement from the Alliance. "Most, importantly, today's announcement allowing direct enrollment ensures that small businesses will be able to access the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, including expanded health care tax credits."
The government announced in April that small businesses would be able to enroll in the SHOPS, but delayed until 2015 small business employees' ability to choose from more than one plan. Instead, the businesses would choose one plan for all of their employees, which was the case for most small businesses before the SHOP launched.
States offering SHOP coverage through state-based exchanges are not affected by Wednesday's announcement.