Few small businesses in New Hampshire using Affordable Care Act insurance market

While thousands of New Hampshire residents have signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, employers have been slow to use the insurance market for small businesses.

The Small Business Health Options Program, also called SHOP, is available to companies with 50 employees or fewer. It opened last year, but technology problems hampered its debut, and it wasn't available online until recently. Mike Wilkey of the New Hampshire Insurance Department said as of January 1, only 36 businesses had signed up for plans covering 262 employees and family members.

Wilkey spoke Friday at a meeting of the Health Exchange Advisory Board, where members also heard from the owner of a North Conway advertising firm who said she will save about $500 this year after using the small business program for her nine employees.

"I'll take that — it pays my electric bill," said Nancy Clark, who pays 50 percent of the cost. "For the first time ever, my health insurance (costs) didn't go up."

Last year, Clark had her employees buy individual plans through the online market created by the president's health care overhaul law. For this year, she was thrilled to find out how easy it was to sign up and pay the monthly premiums online, but wasn't happy that a key feature of the program has been delayed. The program was designed to allow employees to choose from a range of plans, but New Hampshire and 17 other states delayed that provision for a year.

Another board member, Scott Baetz, said he has not ventured onto the SHOP exchange given the rocky rollout and lack of employee choice. Baetz, who owns a five-person Web development company in Windham, said he understands why the board has focused most of its attention on the individual market and the state's uninsured population, but said he's been frustrated by the lack of attention paid to businesses.

"Here in New Hampshire, small businesses are employing 51 percent of the workforce," he said. "This is really important stuff to people who really care, who really cover a lot of our citizens."