Bulletin wire reports

WASHINGTON — Small-business health exchanges run by the federal government in 36 states will not open for online enrollment until November, the Obama administration said Thursday. But applicants may still enroll by phone, mail or fax beginning Oct. 1.

The White House had initially planned to launch these marketplaces, which serve businesses with fewer than 50 employees, on Tuesday, the same day that individual marketplaces go live. While the websites of the federally run exchanges will go live on that date, an administration official said the “feature of shopping for and comparing plans online will be available starting Nov. 1.”

The Obama administration has delayed other features of the small-business marketplaces, including one that would have allowed each employee to pick his or her own health plan using funds from the workplace. That feature was delayed until 2015; instead, workers will enroll in the plan their employers select.

Gary Cohen, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, explained the delay as a decision that would improve consumers’ experiences shopping for coverage on the small-business marketplace. Cohen reiterated that the individual marketplaces would be ready to enroll people on Oct. 1.

Also Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the launch of the HealthCare.gov Spanish-language website will be delayed until later in October.

The delays are specific to the states where the federal government is running the marketplace, so not in Oregon or 13 other states. The setbacks won’t necessarily reduce access to coverage. The Affordable Care Act’s insurance plans don’t start until Jan. 1. The White House will likely emphasize that even if people can’t sign up until November, there’s no change of the date when they will actually be enrolled for insurance.

“We’re disappointed that everything isn’t locked and ready to go, but I don’t think this is a big deal,” said John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the Small Business Majority, which supports the health law. “It will be fully up and running by November, and coverage will start in January.”

That’s true, unless more setbacks arise. For example, the federal marketplace has had trouble determining what premiums individuals are supposed to pay.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act are using the enrollment delay to make the case for delaying the law altogether.

“Every step in the implementation process has seen delays and setbacks; we are certainly not surprised by this one,” said Kevin Kuhlman, manager of legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Small-business owners should not be forced to comply with a law that is clearly not ready for prime time. This is starting to seem like a parody; unfortunately, it is extremely serious.”

‘Blackmail a president’

On the same day as the delays, just days before the health law’s main elements take effect, Barack Obama mounted a passionate, campaign-style defense of Obamacare, mocking opponents for “crazy” arguments and accusing them of trying to “blackmail a president” to stop the law.

Addressing a friendly audience outside Washington, the president abandoned the professorial tone he sometimes takes while describing the program and departed from his text to fire up supporters. He portrayed critics as billionaires who would deny help for the sick, and politicians who have become hostage to tea party ideologues.

Obama, his voice laced with scorn, ridiculed Republicans for threatening to shut down the government or refusing to increase the debt ceiling to undercut the health care program, saying they had “put up every conceivable roadblock” and were “poisoning Obamacare” so they could then “claim it’s sick.”

“All this would be funny if it wasn’t so crazy,” Obama told hundreds of students, professors and others at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.

Public opinion —

Still, a New York Times/CBS News poll shows that just 39 percent of Americans support the president’s health care plan, and just 1 in 3 independents view it favorably. But just 38 percent of the public wants Congress to stop the law by cutting off funding, as Republicans are trying to do.

— From wire reports