Online health insurance marketplace is an opportunity and a challenge for small businesses

Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2015
Small businesses in New Hampshire are facing a lot of questions as the federal health insurance marketplace and its evolving rollout enters its fourth year, but it still offers opportunities for cost savings, which is why their participation through the federal online marketplace has increased 15-fold.

“I came here to find out some details,” said Vicki Leduc, human resources manager for Parker Education, who was one of two dozen businesspeople who attended an hourlong session on aspects of the Affordable Care Act held by the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning.

The company, which owns Parker Academy in Concord as well as tutoring and educational consulting services, wouldn’t seem to be in much need for such information. It already provides health insurance purchased through a private broker, and because it has fewer than 50 full-time employees, it isn’t even required to provide coverage under federal guidelines.

Even so, Leduc said it made sense for the company to keep up, because the Affordable Care Act is still being rolled out.

“Things might change,” Leduc said.

Part of the change this year was the launch of the website for the SHOP Marketplace, where small businesses can shop for and buy health insurance packages of different levels offered by four different companies, just as New Hampshire individuals have done for two years.

The website is one of the reasons that the number of companies in New Hampshire getting health insurance through SHOP soared in 2015, from 36 in January to 511 in late December, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Insurance.

Companies don’t have to use SHOP, but they can obtain insurance to employees through a number of private agents and options.

Bill Davis of Truncellito and Davis Financial Services said one drawback to using SHOP is that it adds bureaucracy.

“It’s one more layer when there is a problem,” said Davis after the Tuesday session given by Jennifer Syria, external affairs specialist at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. He pointed to a case in which an employee had accidentally typed an incorrect birthday; the problem can no longer be fixed with one phone call, he said.

And despite many online aids developed by the government, such as cost and eligibility calculators and multiple click-through guides, Davis said many business owners still need assistance understanding their risks and requirements.

“I doubt that an employer can navigate all these terms themselves,” he said.

“Our members want to learn more. They want to know how to navigate it, and understand their potential liability,” said Tim Sink, president of the Concord Chamber.

Open enrollment for the health insurance marketplace ends Jan. 31, 2016, which means that most opportunities for payment help, based on employee income, end as well. Individuals and companies face higher penalties in 2016 than they did last year if they don’t have proper health insurance.

A big difference in 2016 is that firms with 51 to 99 employees must now provide employees who work at least 30 hours a week with access to affordable health insurance and assist with premiums, and can be penalized if not enough of them – usually 75 percent – sign up within 60 days. Previously, that rule only affected firms with 100 or more full-time employees.

Another difference is that companies can offer plans from more than one of the four companies that sell policies through the federal marketplace in New Hampshire. This can be particularly valuable for firms with multiple offices, because different firms’ health networks may be more appealing in different parts of the state.

That’s important in New Hampshire, a small state where it’s not uncommon for employees to commute in from different states, Syria said.

“That’s a huge benefit to you and your employees,” she said.

Syria admitted that the system isn’t always easy to understand. For example, there are circumstances in which the definition of affordable health insurance is a premium that costs 8 percent of a person’s income, and circumstances in which the definition is a premium that costs 9½ percent.

There was also uncertainty about whether employers must pay a portion of coverage for spouses of employees. This year, they must help cover costs for employees’ minor children, but not their married spouses.

Still, Syria said that her travels across New Hampshire have found many small businesses feel the need to help their employees get health insurance as an incentive to hire and keep workers.

By contrast, she pointed to more rural areas of Maine, where lower-paid employees often bought their own insurance through the federal marketplace because they would get tax incentives.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)