Exchange Readies Second Web Opening

by David Gorn

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The second unveiling happens this week for Covered California's health benefit exchange website. This time small businesses are the enrollment target.

The exchange's website, which launched for individual California consumers on Oct. 1, will go through a weekend-long upgrade in preparation for a Monday re-launch with enrollment accessibility for the Small Business Health Options Program -- known as SHOP.

Brokers and small-business employers will be able to sign up online starting Monday. Once employers sign up for coverage, employees will be able to look up the program online and choose a plan.

The web upgrade is welcome news to John Arensmeyer, CEO of the Small Business Majority.

"The actual processing has been going on already, on paper," Arensmeyer said. "But this is going to be a huge benefit to brokers and business owners, and also to the employees. It's a way for everyone to quickly look at the networks."

The enrollment itself is likely to move slowly, Arensmeyer said. "I think it's going to be a long-term process. We have seen a lot of brokers show interest in this, and we know there's tremendous interest from business owners out there." The website provides another avenue of communication, he said, "When people get information, that generates interest. Word gets out to other business owners."

The deadline for the SHOP exchange is different than the individual market. Individuals who want coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014 have to sign up by Dec. 15, but business owners have through the end of December to make a choice.

"This website's important because if business owners want to sign up for Jan. 1, it's time to get it lined up now," Arensmeyer said. "But as a business owner, as long as you get it in before the end of the year, that's not a problem."

To Arensmeyer, a successful web launch will not be as much about web visits, which measure interest, but about how smooth the brokers' and business owners' experience is, when navigating the system.

"Success would be that the site is working, and the brokers and employers find the process to be fairly easy to use, and that they see there's added value to the outside market," Arensmeyer said.

The SHOP exchange site originally was intended to launch at the same time as the individual exchange site, on Oct. 1. The SHOP launch was delayed to last week, and then postponed one more week.

"This is a long process, this will be continuous enrollment for businesses," Arensmeyer said. "What we're looking for is to get everything in place, and get more brokers signed up … because people will still need to be guided through the process. Some employers will just go to the site and sign up, but that's likely to be the exception and not the rule."

Covered California's monthly board meeting in Sacramento is Thursday, one day before the web redesign starts.


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