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Small businesses in Washington lose out on subsidized health plans

Ted S. Warren
Associated Press

Small businesses in Washington state will not be able to participate in the new health care law, because not enough insurance companies were willing to sell them coverage. 

The biggest part of Pres. Barack Obama’s new health care law is aimed at people with no health insurance. Starting this fall, they’ll be able to buy individual health policies from an online system where they can compare prices. It's also where you can get subsidies for insurance. In Washington state, it's called Washington HealthPlan Finder.

If you work for a business with fewer than 50 employees, the law says your employer has the option of getting insurance for low and middle-income workers—with subsidies. That won’t happen in Washington, at least not on time.

"We, along with many others, were very disappointed to get this news," says Michael Marchand, spokesman for Washington HealthPlan Finder. "All signs pointed to us being able to make both offerings starting October 1, but the [insurance] carriers informed us they were challenged with making the operational changes."

Only one insurance company was willing to participate, covering just four counties in the state, according to testimony this week from the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. The insurers said there were numerous technical challenges, to meet all the criteria in the new law on a short timeline. It's also expensive and time-consuming for insurers, and it's not clear the small business marketplace will have much participation.

Small businesses don't have to offer insurance under the law. It's an option, and they can always purchase insurance outside the new online marketplace, but there wouldn't be any subsidies, even if their employees otherwise would qualify.

Only about 3 percent of the uninsured—3,900 people in the first year of availability—were expected to get health coverage through a small business. Most people without insurance are expected to buy their own.

So, the governing board of the new online marketplace, Washington Health Benefits Exchange, will have to figure out a plan B, probably by delaying the small business option for up to a year.

The individual marketplace still aims to debut in October.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.