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Small businesses give Obamacare marketplaces mixed reviews

NEW YORK — More small businesses than expected are signing up for health insurance on state exchanges that opened this month.

The marketplaces, which began operating Oct. 1 under the new health care law, are designed to offer low-cost insurance for individuals and small businesses. Many business owners have been pleasantly surprised by the rates and coverage, according to accounts from owners and exchange officials, although some are disappointed and say they plan to buy insurance privately.

A spot check of U.S. marketplaces shows that the number of companies that have opened accounts on any state exchange so far tends to be in the hundreds. Officials note it's still early, given that policies sold in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces won't take effect until Jan. 1.

New York, Minnesota and Vermont officials say small-business enrollments have surpassed expectations. But signup rates differ widely partly because of the way the exchanges and plans are set up. In Maryland, the small-business marketplace won't open until Jan. 1. In Washington state, the small-business exchange exists in only two of 39 counties. Insurers aren't offering coverage elsewhere because most employers have private insurance plans or get their coverage through trade groups, says Michael Marchand, a spokesman for that state's exchange.

But even in states where small-business exchanges aren't open, there's interest. Oregon's exchange won't open until early November, but more than 16,000 people have visited sections of the website that detail coverage for small companies.

In Minnesota, about 350 small businesses created accounts on the state's exchange as of Tuesday morning.

"That's more than we thought we would have," says April Todd-Malmlov, executive director of the state's exchange.

"I thought we'd just have a lot of lookers."

Pleased with rates

Dominique Rodgers is happy with the rates on Louisiana's exchange.

"They looked comparable to what I'm paying now, a little more expensive," says Rodgers, office manager at Reputation Capital Media Services, a marketing firm based in Baton Rouge, La.

She's not ready to sign up for coverage. She'll meet with her company's outside human resources adviser and review the options before making a decision by early November.

Members of the Small Business Majority are generally pleased by what they've seen, said John Arensmeyer, CEO of the advocacy group.

"They're not seeing costs go through the roof," he said.

The unhappy ones

Dr. Leo Lombardo was surprised to learn from the California marketplace that he's unlikely to get a break on insurance for employees he'll soon hire for his clinic.

Under the new law, employers can get a tax credit if the average salary they pay to their workers is less than $50,000. Lombardo, whose practice is in Ventura, expects to pay salaries of $80,000 and more to his staffers, including a nurse and physician's assistant.

"Without the additional tax credit, there's no advantage in going to the exchange compared to going to an insurance company and buying a small-business policy," he says.

And many owners won't buy in the marketplace because they're satisfied with plans they already have, says Todd McCracken, president of advocacy group the National Small Business Association.

"Their intention is to keep doing what they've been doing."