Small business insurance exchanges seek rebound

Early enrollment for the health overhaul’s small business insurance exchanges fell far short of the 2 million workers who were expected to sign up this year. The shortfall calls into question the future of the exchanges as they begin accepting enrollment for 2015.

About 76,000 people had purchased coverage on 18 exchanges through June 1, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Enrollment figures from 33 state exchanges that are run through the federal government are not yet available, but researchers expect those totals to be low as well.

“It’s still unclear whether or not these are going to take off in a substantial way, but we can’t assess that from where we are now,” said Linda Blumberg, an economist for the nonpartisan Urban Institute who has studied the exchanges.

The Small Business Health Options Program opened this year to companies with 50 employees or fewer. Its exchanges were expected to give more options and better prices to small businesses that can pay as much as 20 percent more for their coverage than larger companies.

But technology problems hampered their debut. Customers in many states found few coverage choices, and they got better deals outside the exchanges.

Government officials say they’ve worked to improve the exchanges, and both coverage choices and the pool of businesses that participate are expected to grow in the coming years.

“SHOP was created to give small business owners and employees access to a choice of quality, affordable health insurance plans,” Health and Human Services Department official Rhett Buttle said in an email.

The overhaul created insurance exchanges for both individuals and small businesses as part of its push to cover millions of uninsured people. The individual exchanges enrolled about 7 million people in their debut, which topped some initial projections.

An exchange helped DC Brau Brewing in Washington, D.C., offer more than 50 insurance options to its employees starting in September. That’s a leap from what it used to offer.

“It was literally two plans, and we weren’t even sure if it was what our employees needed,” said Mari Rodela, an executive with the microbrewery.

She said that, with the exchange, DC Brau could give younger employees who don’t use health care much a low-cost option and still provide more extensive coverage for other workers.

“It was nice to get ‘thank yous’ from your employees,” she said. “They like having the options.”

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