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A new year, a new set of rules and deadlines for Obamacare

What’s a surefire way to stop business owners in their tracks? Throw a whopping dose of uncertainty in their path. They’ll be more likely to hold off on capital investments, freeze hiring and just generally operate in panic mode.

Throughout the year, some business owners in Maryland have voiced their concerns with aspects of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, and, in many cases, their No. 1 gripe was about the uncertainty the law was causing. Multiply that by 50 states and add other complaints from interest groups on all sides, and the result was a delay at the federal level in a handful of deadlines or implementation dates of certain ACA provisions.

Although most of the delays have focused on giving consumers more time to buy individual policies, some have ramifications for businesses, as well. But how’s a busy business owner supposed to keep up with all the changes? Simply refer to The Daily Record’s handy guide, of course, which also provides at-a-glance information about the deadlines and policies still scheduled to go into effect in January.

Postponements

The employer mandate: The requirement that employers with more than 50 full-time-equivalent workers provide health insurance or pay a penalty (typically about $2,000 per worker, after the first 30 workers) was considered integral to President Barack Obama’s goal of ensuring universal coverage. So it came as a surprise in July when the White House delayed the mandate until 2015 to give businesses more time to understand and comply with the law, particularly its requirements about reporting employees’ insurance information to the Internal Revenue Service.

Most companies and business groups welcomed the delay, but a few complained they would rather get it over with. In October, the conservative group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Florida orthodontist alleging that Obama overstepped his authority in delaying the employer mandate. The case, which is pending in federal court, alleges the plaintiff spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to comply with the mandate by 2014 and is seeking to block Obama from postponing the provision.

Original effective date: January 2014

New effective date: January 2015

What’s the impact? The Congressional Budget Office estimated that employers that did not comply would have collectively paid $10 billion in penalties in 2014. The delay saves businesses money but costs the government revenue it had counted on when budgeting for the ACA’s implementation. And although businesses now have another year to familiarize themselves with the regulations and plan accordingly, some uncertainty persists. Given the administration’s willingness to push back deadlines, there’s no guarantee that all details and deadlines related to the mandate will stay the same.

Also, businesses hovering around the 50-employee cutoff have important hiring decisions to make in 2014 that will affect whether they are subject to the mandate in 2015. The classification as “large” or “small” depends on how many workers were employed the previous calendar year.

The SHOP exchange: Maryland has not yet launched the Small Business Health Options Program, the insurance marketplace for small employers. The SHOP exchange was originally supposed to open Oct. 1, the same day the Maryland Health Connection opened for individuals to shop for plans. But because of the disastrous rollout of the individual exchange, officials delayed the SHOP exchange twice. First, they pushed the launch date to Jan. 1. A few months later, it was pushed back until April 1.

Small businesses (those with fewer than 50 full-time employees) won’t be levied a penalty for not providing insurance. But if they do provide it, they may be eligible for tax credits to help cover the cost of premiums. The credit amount will be based on the number of employees and the average wage. Businesses with more than 25 workers or that pay an average wage higher than $50,000 are ineligible for tax credits.

Original launch date: Oct. 1, 2013

New launch date: April 1, 2014

What’s the impact? Coverage now won’t begin for SHOP plans until June at the earliest. And waiting several months to offer incentives to small businesses to provide insurance might discourage some firms from doing so until next year, or at all. However, state officials say Maryland’s small-group market is already robust and competitive, so firms aren’t in dire need of the SHOP exchange.

New for 2014

Coverage will begin Jan. 1 for individuals who purchased insurance by the cutoff date, which was Dec. 27 for most insurers.

New health insurance tax: The ACA introduces a fee on insurance companies. Critics refer to the fee as the “health insurance tax” because, although it is structured as an annual fee on insurers, it will likely be passed on to policyholders in the form of higher premiums. A set amount of revenue will be collected each year, starting with $8 billion in 2014 and $11.3 billion in 2015, reaching more than $90 billion within 10 years.

What’s the impact? The tax only applies to fully insured plans; self-insured groups are exempt. Typically, large companies are the only groups to self-insure, so critics charge that the tax is an unfair burden on small businesses and individuals. Estimates vary, but multiple organizations predict premiums for employer-sponsored insurance could increase by 2 to 3 percent next year.

Organizations such as America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association, and the National Federation for Independent Business worry that the greater costs of insurance could stifle hiring at small firms and decrease the likelihood that small employers will offer coverage.

March 31: Open enrollment ends for the individual market.