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Health law component to be delayed

WASHINGTON — Unable to meet tight deadlines in the new health care law, the Obama administration is delaying parts of a program intended to provide affordable health insurance to small businesses and their employees, a major selling point for the health care legislation.

The law calls for a new insurance marketplace specifically for small businesses, starting next year. But in most states, employers will not be able to get what Congress intended: the option to provide workers with a choice of health plans. They will instead be limited to a single plan.

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This choice option, already available to many big businesses, was supposed to become available to small employers in January 2014. But administration officials said they would delay it to 2015 in the 33 states where the federal government will be running insurance markets known as exchanges. And they will delay the requirement for other states as well.

The promise of affordable health insurance for small businesses was portrayed as a major advantage of the new health care law, mentioned often by White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress as they fought opponents of the legislation.

Supporters of the health care law said they were disappointed by the turn of events.

The delay will ‘‘prolong and exacerbate health care costs that are crippling 29 million small businesses,’’ said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

In the weeks leading up to passage of the health care legislation in 2010, Landrieu provided crucial support for the measure, after securing changes to help small businesses.

The administration cited ‘‘operational challenges’’ as a reason for the delay. As a result, it said, most small employers buying insurance through an exchange will offer just a single health plan to their workers next year.

Health insurance availability and cost are huge concerns for small businesses. They have less bargaining power than large companies.

The 2010 law stipulates that each state will have a Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP exchange, to help employers compare health plans.

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