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Triage for Administration Punts on Small Business Exchange

Sometimes to save the patient, you have to chop off a limb. The Obama administration is doing just that with the underperfoming website, announcing Wednesday that it will give up on opening the exchange for small businesses for another year and will rely on direct enrollment through insurance companies and brokers instead.

“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 official at the Department of Health and Human Services said.

The move allows the administration to focus all of its efforts on the individual exchange, which is expected to face a crush of users as the clock clicks closer to a Dec. 23 deadline for enrollment to be insured on Jan. 1. Administration officials Wednesday afternoon were already warning that the website would be able to handle 50,000 people at a time — or about 800,000 per day — but could continue to have problems handling spikes in volume.

There are some positives for small businesses in the decision, according to details provided by an HHS official. Small businesses will no longer have to be certified as eligible for tax credits before signing up for their plans. They will merely have to have their applicaiton done before filing their taxes.

But the latest announcement is another stunning setback for the administration’s signature initiative and comes just a day before Thanksgiving and days before a self-imposed Dec. 1 deadline for the main website to be ready for the vast majority of users — one that the administration has been worried enough about of late to not engage in a full-court promotional press to get Americans to apply.

Republicans quickly pounced.

“Turkey is not the only thing being carved at the White House this Thanksgiving,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. “As Americans prepare to celebrate and give thanks with their families, the administration announces yet another carefully timed delay of its signature health care law. … Piecemeal delays and working outside of Congress to issue regulations does nothing to solve the fact that this law remains a tremendous failure that still, two months into open enrollment, is not even 80 percent operational.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also questioned the timing. “Once again, President Obama has unilaterally delayed another major portion of Obamacare, and once again, he has tried to bury bad news around a holiday hoping nobody will notice,” he said. “These are hardly the actions of a transparent Administration.”

Small businesses will be able to compare plans starting Dec. 1 but not buy them without going to an insurance company or broker.

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