Illinois is one of five states where small businesses will get an early start in evaluating 2015 health insurance plans as part of an effort by the federal government to test its online systems before open enrollment.

Small employers, agents and brokers in Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Delaware and New Jersey will be able to establish accounts on the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, starting in late October, three weeks earlier than the rest of the country.

The SHOP exchange, set up under the Affordable Care Act, allows employers with 50 or fewer full-time employees to compare and buy commercial health insurance plans for workers. Although the small-business exchanges officially launched last fall, the marketplace was not available online, only on paper.

By rolling out the online marketplace early in just five states, the federal government hopes to avoid the types of problems it encountered last year when HealthCare.gov crashed and remained largely out of commission for the first two months of open enrollment.

Open enrollment this year runs from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15.

The federal Health and Human Services Department, which administers the exchange, said the pilot launch will allow the government to test how well the systems work before the full rollout and gather feedback from users that can be used to improve the enrollment process.

Ben Wakana, a Health and Human Services spokesman, said the government is "focused on implementing the (small-business marketplace) in a way that best serves the interests of small employers and their employees."

Starting this fall, the small-business portal for Illinois also will be hosted at HealthCare.gov.

Companies with 50 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees are not required to buy coverage for their workers, though some are eligible for tax credits worth up to 50 percent of their premium contributions if they opt to do so on the exchange.

As part of the early rollout in Illinois, employers will be able to set up an account on HealthCare.gov, assign a broker to their account, upload an employee roster and check their eligibility for tax credits.

The online version of the SHOP exchanges were one of several initiatives of the health law that were delayed in the first year.

The inability to easily compare and shop for plans online dissuaded many brokers and small businesses from exploring their options or signing up for coverage, said Barbara Otto, chief executive of Health & Disability Advocates, a Chicago-based health policy and patient advocacy group.

A federal spokesman said enrollment data for the SHOP exchange will not be available until later this year, though most people involved in the enrollment and outreach effort said the number is low.

"Neither brokers nor small-business owners really understood it, and as a result, a very, very small number signed up," Otto said.

Illinois was chosen in part because of its "established and reliable ground operation" that will enable it to engage with small businesses and consumers, according to a government official.

Otto said she was "enthusiastic" that Illinois was chosen as one of the pilot states for the rollout, noting that the state missed an opportunity to enroll more low-income adults in private coverage last year in part because of the lack of a viable small-business exchange.

"The portal is going to help us reach more than a half-million people who aren't currently in coverage," she said. "This could make a big difference."

Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, the state's enrollment arm, said the early launch of the SHOP website will benefit small business, their employees and insurance brokers, who will be able to establish online profiles and gain authorization from employer clients in advance of open enrollment.

Access this fall to the online portal "is an invaluable asset as we build upon the relationships with brokers and agents that we developed in year one," Koehler said.

pfrost@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @peterfrost