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Online health care enrollment for small businesses delayed

Many small businesses won't be able to "SHOP" online for Obamacare insurance this year.

The Obama Administration — in its latest holiday-eve announcement of an embarrassing delay in its health-care law — on Wednesday said small businesses in states served by HealthCare.gov won't be allowed to purchase Obamacare coverage for their employees through that federally operated Web site until Nov. 2014.

If they want to buy such Small Business Health Option Program (SHOP) coverage for workers, those businesses in the 36 affected states will have do so directly through an insurer, agent, or broker, as many of them already do now, said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Bataille said the online SHOP exchange isn't ready to be launched because officials decided that it was more "important" to get the individual insurance application and enrollment functions on tech-troubled HealthCare.gov fixed.

The delay of online shopping by businesses with less than 50 employees only applies to companies in states where Obamacare insurance is being sold by HealthCare.gov.

(Read more: Gobble, gobble, code, code: No Turkey Day for Obamacare tech fixers)

Businesses in the other 14 states and District of Columbia can shop online for insurance through the government-run health exchanges in those jurisdictions.

And Bataille noted businesses in the affected states will still be able to access government tax credits available to them if they buy SHOP coverage. Those credits will cover up to 50 percent of the premium costs of workers at companies who have fewer than 25 employees.

For the federal SHOP program in 2014, small business can only buy one plan for all their employees. Next year, their employees will be able to select which plan they want for themselves.

(Read more: Obamacare extension)

The federal SHOP online exchange was supposed to launch Oct. 1, when HealthCare.gov opened for business selling individual insurance to people. But officials delayed the SHOP function because of the myriad technical glitches that have afflicted HealthCare.gov.

The one-year SHOP delay is only the latest in a slew of postponement and extensions the Obama Administration has announced for its signature health-care reform law in the past year, including a one-year delay in the requirement that large employers offer affordable insurance to their workers, the online, the postponement of the Spanish-language function of HealthCare.gov, and a one-week extension of the deadline to enroll in individual coverage for it to kick in by Jan. 1.

The online SHOP delay was met with scorn by Congressional Republicans, who want to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and who have been conducting a series of probes of how HealthCare.gov got launched despite warning signs that the site was far from ready to serve most of the people who wanted to enroll there.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), said, "Turkey is not the only thing being carved at the White House this Thanksgiving."

"As Americans prepare to celebrate and give thanks with their families, the administration announces yet another carefully timed delay of its signature health care law. Just as it did over July 4 while we celebrated our independence, today the administration is doing its best to bury the latest confirmation that this law was not ready for prime time," Upton said,

"For months officials looked us in the eye and told us everything was 'on track' but we have now learned through our investigation that internally the administration had serious concerns about its ability to deliver on October 1," Upton said. "Piecemeal delays and working outside of Congress to issue regulations does nothing to solve the fact that this law remains a tremendous failure that still, two months into open enrollment, is not even 80 percent operational," Upton said.

(Read more: California's "grey" Obamacare enrollees)

Bataille on Thursday said HealthCare.gov is running much better than it did right after its launch, and is "on track to meet our goal" of its tech team fixing the site well enough for it to run smoothly for most users by this Saturday.

Bataille said a series of upgrades would allow the site to handle up to 50,000 users at any one time, and about 800,000 people in the course of a single day.

Currently, she said, the site can "comfortably" handle 25,000 users.

"We have a lot of work to do over the next few days, both for software fixes, and hardware upgrades," Bataille said.

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