(Reuters) - The U.S. government announced new delays in rolling out President Barack Obama's healthcare reform, saying small business and Spanish-language health insurance enrollment services would not begin on October 1 as planned.
Five days before enrollment is set to begin for millions of uninsured Americans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said employers with 50 or fewer workers will not be able to sign their staff up for private insurance in federally operated exchanges until a month later, November 1, because of technical problems.
The White House also said a Spanish-language service for Latinos, who make up about one-third of the 47 million uninsured in the country, will also not be available until "sometime in October."
Administration officials did not explain the nature of the technical problems, but they emphasized that full online enrollment for other individuals will be available on October 1 under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
The news stirred new doubts about how successful Obamacare will prove to be after months of delays and technical glitches following three years of legal and political challenges from Republicans and other critics.
Obama and fellow Democrats are trying to stave off Republican attempts to delay the entire healthcare reform launch with the threat of shutting down the federal government or risking a U.S. default on its credit.
"Obama was literally praising Obamacare when another delay was announced," tweeted Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.
The administration sought to play down the delays, saying that new benefits for the uninsured would still begin on January 1. Small businesses would be able to shop for coverage next week, fill out paper insurance applications or discuss their options with call center staff.
"As promised, people will be able to see what's in the marketplace, how to look at coverage, ask questions about whether or not this is good for their employees, find out about the tax credit then beginning November 1st, do the online enrollment," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview with cable-TV channel MSNBC.
A release by the HHS focused on a ramp-up in government education and outreach efforts toward small businesses, mentioning the enrollment delay only in passing in the 8th paragraph for the Small Business Health Options Program.
Word on the delays surfaced just after Obama wrapped up a speech in which he lashed out at his Republican opponents for predicting the law's failure, declaring: "The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.
One Republican, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, said in response that "this is just the latest example of his rhetoric about the law not matching reality. It's clear that the exchanges aren't ready for prime time."
But some members of the business community sounded a more supportive note.
"This is a huge undertaking and October 1 is not the only opportunity for small businesses to enroll. The glitches will come and we hope they will be speedily resolved. But in the meantime I don't have the sense that small businesses were lined up at the gates waiting to get in," said Neil Trautwein, healthcare lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.
John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the Small Business Majority, said Obamacare would bring major change to the U.S. healthcare system "so having a month delay is not a huge issue in the greater scheme of things."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Grant McCool)