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Add this to the list of Cyber Monday shopping possibilities: California small businesses can now self-enroll through the state health insurance exchange's online marketplace.

On Monday, Covered California launched the new function to allow owners of businesses with up to 50 employees to sign up for health care through the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, with coverage beginning Jan. 1.

In a statement, Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee said more than 1,500 small business owners already have explored their options since Oct. 1 — with some registering, checking eligibility or working with certified agents to obtain quotes.

California's latest launch contrasts sharply with the troubled rollout of the federally-run, the exchange for residents of three-dozen other states without state exchanges. On the eve of Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama announced a one-year delay for small-business signups through

California's system now allows business owners to submit online applications at and initiate electronic open enrollment for their employees.

Businesses may qualify for a federal tax credit, for example, if they have fewer than 25 full-time-equivalent employees, pay employees an average of less than $50,000 annually, and contribute at least one-half toward their employees' premium costs.

"The tax credits available to small business through Covered California make quality coverage more affordable," Lee said. "For example, a beauty shop with 10 full-time employees and total wages of $250,000 that purchases insurance through Covered California's SHOP may be eligible for a $35,000 tax credit in 2014.

"We know that the tax credit is meaningful for a lot of small business that have been struggling to obtain quality, affordable coverage for their employees."

SHOP's participating insurers are Blue Shield of California, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, Chinese Community Health Plan, Sharp Health Plan and Western Health Advantage.

PHOTO: Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee speaks to the media in May 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling


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