New Hampshire businesses aren’t happy with the latest delay in the small group health insurance market created by the Affordable Care Act, but some are more understanding than others.
Companies have been able to purchase coverage in the Small Business Health Options, or SHOP, marketplace from brokers and insurance companies since last fall, but the online enrollment portal isn’t expected to launch until November.
The state’s insurance commissioner is seeking to delay a key feature that would allow employees to pick their coverage from a list of plans, saying he is concerned about maintaining a stable and competitive group market and wary of repeating the problems associated with the rocky rollout of the healthcare.gov portal for individual consumers.
That frustrates Sean Caron, owner of Sentinel Insurance Group in Exeter. Several of his clients decided against buying insurance through the new marketplace this year because the only company offering plans had a limited provider network. More companies will be available next year.
“By delaying the SHOP, you’re really delaying what some of the key points of the Affordable Care Act are. I say, if it’s not going to work and it’s not ready, put it out there so the people see what’s happening and can make educated decisions at election time come November,” he said.
Nancy Clark, who owns an advertising agency in North Conway, strongly supports the federal overhaul law but is disappointed in the delays with the SHOP. She gave stipends to her employees to purchase insurance in the individual market this year but hopes to use the small-business market next year to help save money and offer her workers an extra benefit. She is skeptical, however, that it will be running by January, when she does her budgeting.
“The employee choice isn’t critical for us to explore it as an option,” she said. “We just need the best plans at the most affordable price.”
Adrienne Rupp of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire said anecdotal evidence suggests few businesses have participated in the SHOP so far. Without the employee choice feature, the only real incentive is the tax credit available to some businesses, she said.
“It’s very confusing and cumbersome to use right now,” she said. “I think the general feeling among small-business owners is, `This is great, if it ever gets here.”‘
While businesses want the employee choice feature, they also are concerned about its potential impact on premiums, she said. The insurance commissioner raised concerns about rates increasing if one company ended up with sicker customers.
“The general feeling of businesses is that yes, the delay is frustrating, but we want to make sure it’s done right and there’s as minimal disruption to the market as possible,” she said.
One company that has used the small-business marketplace is Parker Education, which includes a private school and tutoring business in Concord. Finance director Jennifer Kretovic said the company saved about 10 percent by purchasing insurance for its 28 full-time employees under a new plan, and it used those savings to offer new benefits, such as short-term disability.
“For us, it’s been phenomenal,” she said.
Kretovic sat down with the employees and had them compare what they could get on the individual market with the company’s plan. Seeing how little they knew about the process makes her understand why the state is delaying the employee choice feature in the small-business marketplace.
“People like to have control over what their options are, but if they’re not going to understand it and it’s only going to be confusing, then wait the year,” she said. “Because, honestly, the last thing we need right now is more people confused about what their different options are.”
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