Covered California, the insurance exchange in the Golden State, will take its online enrollment portal offline this coming Friday through Monday for upgrades to its SHOP offerings.

The fixes were initially planned for last weekend, but Covered California said the extra week “[allowed] for more strenuous testing of functionality.”

“There are some very complex architecture problems within the website that are more complicated than anyone thought they were going to be. At this point, it was better to delay the 2.5 [version] than to come out and have it not be correct,” says Sam Smith, president of the California Association of Health Underwriters and a member of Covered California’s Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) advisory group.

According to Covered California reps, the updated site will allow small business owners to view health insurance quotes online, as well as enroll in SHOP plans. Previously, business owners could only register and check for eligibility on the site.

Karen Cook, the owner of Fresno’s Cupcakes Bakery, says the site’s functionality has prevented her from checking out health-care options for her business through Covered California. Cupcakes Bakery currently does not offer health insurance to its six employees.

“I’ve tried a few times and I only get to a certain point. I haven’t been able to get all the way through [the process],” says Cook. She says she was disappointed when she tried to call for assistance, given that the call center is only staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I’m surprised that they had limited bankers’ hours for their call center,” says Cook.

Cook says she still wants to check out the state’s SHOP exchange offerings – but is put off by the experience thus far.

“I don’t have a lot of time to sit there and be frustrated … I couldn’t get through the few times I’ve tried. I’m still active in my business daily, and I don’t have the extra time and don’t want to make a week’s project out of it,” says Cook.

Few Options Available Through Covered California

Health insurance brokers in California say they aren’t seeing much value in the exchange plans offered to small business owners – especially those that don’t qualify for subsidies.

“I understand the rates are exactly the same as to what private companies are offering [offline]. The only benefit is the tax benefit and that’s narrowed the market quite a bit,” says Kathy Hope, owner of the California-based Insurance Advisors. The tax benefit is only available to businesses with fewer than 25 employees and average salaries under $50,000.

“That narrows all my groups right down to none,” says Hope.  

Smith also says he can’t find a way to justify enrolling in the exchange – unless a business qualifies for the subsidy – given that the plans in Covered California offer limited access to doctors.

“The network of physicians available [in the exchange] is significantly different from outside the exchange,” says Smith.

In a statement released last week, Covered California announced that just under 60,000 individuals had enrolled in plans as of Nov. 12. Small business enrollment numbers were not announced in the statement.

Follow Gabrielle Karol on Twitter @GabrielleKarol