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Petaluma's small businesses aren't buying Obamacare

While many small business owners in America won’t be able to shop online for employee benefits through the Affordable Care Act until next year, here in California the Small Business Health Option Program (SHOP) opened for enrollment this week. But many business owners in Petaluma were left feeling perplexed by what the SHOP means for them.

“They’re hearing all of this stuff on the federal (SHOP) and nothing on the state level. That’s confusing people,” said Steve Fillinger, who represents 55 small businesses — defined as 50 employees or fewer — as a broker at the Petaluma-based Fillinger Insurance.

In response, many of his clients are choosing not to explore the state health care exchange this year. Even with the lure of potential tax subsidies offered in the state’s marketplace, most, have renewed the benefits package they offered previously, he said.

Onita Pellegrini, chief executive officer of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, said she has not fielded any queries about SHOP from business owners, likely because many already offer employee benefits that they’re sticking with. Nonetheless, the chamber is developing a workshop on the topic with the Petaluma Health Care District, which will take place in January to help Petaluma’s many small businesses better understand the nuances of the new offering.

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state’s health exchange marketplace, said the SHOP has garnered interest from about 1,500 small businesses thus far. “Those are businesses that have set up an account (in the SHOP),” he said during a media call on Monday, explaining that they haven’t purchased insurance products, but are looking at what options are available. “Our forecast is that by the end of 2014, 7,000 small businesses will have enrolled, then more every year after that.”

While the Affordable Care Act does not require small businesses to offer employees health insurance, Covered California hopes to entice businesses with tax subsidies of up to 50 percent off the cost of premiums for those that do provide the employee benefit.

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