Obamacare

A student looks at an information sheet offered by a supporter of the Affordable Healthcare Act, at an education and awareness event on the law, also know as "Obamacare," on the campus of Santa Monica City College in California on October 10, 2013. (ROBYN BECK, AFPGetty Images / October 10, 2013)

Illinois is one of five states where small businesses will get an early start to the process of evaluating health insurance plans for next year as part of an effort by the federal government to test its systems prior to 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, allow employers with 50 or fewer full-time employees to compare and purchase commercial health insurance plans on online marketplaces.

The Illinois marketplace is operated in partnership with the federal government at HealthCare.gov.

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

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.

The federal Health and Human Services Department, the agency that administers the exchange, said it opted to expand the functionality in five states early to test how well the systems work prior to the full rollout and gather feedback from users.

Ben Wakana, a spokesman for the federal Health and Human Services Department, 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.”

pfrost@tribune.com