After a Slow Start, Federal Small Business Health Insurance Marketplace Offers New and Improved Functions

While much discussion about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has focused on health insurance coverage for individuals and the insurance marketplaces where consumers can shop for plans, the marketplace for small businesses has flown under the radar by comparison. Certainly, much attention has been paid to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) effect on small businesses, as Congress debates the law’s definition of full time work and the Obama administration recently opted to delay implementation of rules regarding insurance standards for the coverage that businesses provide their employees. But the ACA’s Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), the marketplace for small businesses and their employees, has received less attention from lawmakers and employers alike. 

SHOP marketplaces were envisioned as online, one-stop-shopping portals that could aggregate the purchasing power of multiple small businesses; provide employers and employees with more health plan choices as well as more comparative information about those plans; and give small employers new ways to offer coverage to their workers. To date, 17 states and the District of Columbia have established their own SHOP marketplaces, while a federally run model, sometimes called the FF-SHOP, operates in the remaining 33.

One reason that the SHOP marketplace has received less attention is that enrollment got off to a slow start. In 2014, both the federal and state-based SHOP marketplaces saw substantially lower enrollment than expected. Researchers have identified a variety of challenges that may have contributed to the disappointing start. In particular,the FF-SHOP was hampered by ongoing technical problems.

Federal regulators sought to significantly improve the shopping experience for small employers, their workers, and the broker community in the second year of coverage. The new FF-SHOP website, launched in the fall of 2014, allows users to browse plan offerings anonymously and enroll in coverage online, offers interactive tools to ease the sign-up process, and provides options for obtaining personalized assistance, including a new agent/broker interface.

In their latest blog post for the Commonwealth Fund, Kevin Lucia, Justin Giovannelli, and Sean Miskell discuss these improvements and argue that employers ought to give the FF-SHOP a second look.

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