Small businesses are the backbone of our communities. And, in an economy where small businesses create two-thirds of jobs, owners and employees deserve a health insurance market with fairer prices, better choices, and greater certainty. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, that market is on its way.

Beginning in 2014, Vermont small business owners will have access to a new Health Insurance Marketplace called Vermont Health Connect--which opens for enrollment on October 1st--that will allow them to make side-by-side comparisons to find a plan that fits their budget and that's right for their businesses and employees. Each Marketplace will operate a Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, focused just on small businesses.

And while many small business owners have questions about the employer responsibility provision, it is important to note that businesses with fewer than 50 employees -- that's 96 percent of small businesses -- are not required to purchase insurance. Of the remaining 4 percent of small businesses with more than 50 employees, most already provide insurance. So the number of businesses that will have to begin offering employee health insurance or pay a penalty is very small.

Small businesses are also seeing savings thanks to new tax credits available to help them cover their employees. Many small businesses with 25 or fewer employees have already received a tax credit of up to 35 percent of their health insurance costs. And beginning in 2014, this tax credit will go up to 50 percent. According to an IRS 2009 report, in Vermont alone, there may be over 109,000 small businesses that may be eligible for tax credits.

No business owner wants to drop coverage for their employees. For many, their employees are like a family. For others, offering health insurance is critical to attracting the kind of workers they need to succeed.

Ben Werlin and Jeff Santoro, the owners of MusicStoreLive, want to offer medical coverage to their employees. MusicStoreLive is an online guitar retailer based in South Burlington, Vermont.

"Ben and I definitely have plans to offer healthcare when the company is in a position to afford it," said Jeff Santoro, MusicStoreLive co-owner. "It's our ultimate goal to make sure our team is well provided for as we grow the business. Being a new business, we aren't yet at a point to offer these benefits due to the cost associated with the programs."

Thankfully, starting in January, 2014, employers will have many more options. To learn more about the health insurance marketplace, please visit: www.healthcare.gov or www.sba.gov/healthcare.

Christie L. Hager is the U.S. Health and Human Services regional director and Jeanne A. Hulit is the U.S. Small Business Administration Acting SBA New England regional administrator.

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