In another delay for the health care law and another sign of problems with its central website, the Obama administration announced a day before the Thanksgiving holiday that it would push off online enrollment for small businesses by another year.
The Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that it will delay the launch of the online SHOP Marketplace -- which is meant for small businesses -- until November 2014. Officials did not give a hard deadline, though the start could easily slip past the 2014 midterms, sparing the administration any headaches right before the election.
Critics, though, said the move would create more "onerous" paperwork for job creators during the next year.
"Business owners across this country are already having health care plans for their employees canceled by this law, and now they're told they won't have access to the system the president promised them to find them different coverage," House Speaker John Boehner said.
The announcement comes after the administration first announced, right before the Oct. 1 launch of all ObamaCare exchanges, that it was delaying the small business market. At the time, the administration claimed the delay would only be until this November.
But with the end of the month fast approaching and the administration already struggling to repair the website for those on the individual market, HHS officials are now telling small business owners to sign up directly through an insurer, agent or broker.
"This allows small employers to sign up for coverage through offline enrollment while [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] works on creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace," an HHS official said.
The delay will apply to those in the three-dozen states where the federal government is running the marketplace.
The announcement signals the administration is not only continuing to fix this particular feature, but is also trying to limit traffic to HealthCare.gov.
The administration is nearing its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline for the fixing the site, and Fox News confirms that officials have already been urging allies not to drive traffic to the site -- out of concern that too much volume could cause the site to crash.
The National Federation of Independent Business voiced dismay at the latest announcement, saying it would only make employers' jobs harder.
"This new delay announcement is a disappointment but not a surprise. Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process," NFIB legislative affairs manager Kevin Kuhlman said in a statement.
"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. The continued delays add to uncertainty and contribute to the decision of many owners to take early renewals of their small-group plans."
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., accused the administration of "doing its best to bury the latest confirmation that this law was not ready for prime time," by making the announcement right before the holiday.
When the administration first announced a delay in the small business sign-up in late September, they allowed employers to start shopping for coverage. They were able to get the process going by filling out a paper form.
With the announcement, HHS is urging small businesses to use "direct enrollment" to sign up, noting they can still enroll their staff via phone and mail, and in-person.
HHS also announced that the current Dec. 15 deadline for small businesses to enroll their employees if they want coverage by the first of the year has been extended to Dec. 23.
They also announced that small businesses will not have to send in an application for a separate tax credit now -- they can instead wait until tax time.
Under the law, most small businesses do not have to provide coverage. But firms with 50 or more employees face a mandate to offer insurance or risk fines from the government.
That coverage mandate was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, but the administration caused a stir this summer by unexpectedly delaying it a year to address employer complaints.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.