The Affordable Care Act and health insurance haven’t had it easy in the media lately, but the Affordable Care Act should make shopping for health insurance easier for small businesses. While businesses have another year to make sure they’re compliant with the Affordable Care Act, it doesn’t mean small business owners should wait until the last minute to choose employee health care options.

That was the message heard by a group of small to mid-sized business owners who recently participated in the Obamacare Essentials seminar, sponsored by WGN Radio and COUNTRY Financial. The event, held at the Hyatt Lodge in Oakbrook, and hosted by Ilyce Glink, focused on what small businesses need to know about the upcoming health care changes under the new Affordable Care Act and what impact it will have on their employees and their business’s bottom line.

Attendees heard from health care journalists Bruce Japsen and Alison Szot who helped explain the ins and outs of shopping for health insurance with the Affordable Care Act. They were joined by a panel of insurance and tax experts, including Matt Johnston of COUNTRY Life, Kevin Cassidy of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Rich Fahn of Excell Benefit Group and Mark Luscombe of the CCH. Together they answered questions and cleared up a lot of the confusion business owners had surrounding tax credits, the SHOP exchange, penalties and more.

Making health care more understandable is a challenge, acknowledged Cassidy. But he does think the Affordable Care Act will make shopping for health insurance easier and more straightforward for small business owners and individuals. With high deductible health plans continuing to grow in popularity, employees want to be able to make the best decision possible. Cassidy hopes that the adoption of the essential benefits will allow shoppers to easily compare plans while getting a better grasp of what they’ll actually be receiving.

Brokers are one way businesses can improve their grasp on the law and have an easier time shopping for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Fahn repeatedly stressed the importance of using a broker when looking for new health insurance plans. “You’re experts in your business, but you’re not experts in health insurance,” he said. Insurance premiums are the same whether a business or individual purchases a plan directly or through a broker, so Fahn recommends finding someone who knows all of the details surrounding the health care exchange.

Japsen explained some of the important benefits of the Affordable Care Act, stating that small businesses will have fewer surprises now that every insurance company has to offer a standard set of “10 essential benefits.” These basic benefits will help level the playing field among buyers and allow for a more evenhanded shopping experience, he said.

Johnston agreed with Japsen’s account of a level playing field. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will only be able to use three characteristics when underwriting health plans: age, smoker status and location. All previous medical issues and history will be taken out of the equation when shopping for a new health plan, Johnston affirmed.

The Affordable Care Act is a complex and evolving piece of legislation. By thinking about it now, small businesses will have plenty of time to plan ahead and determine whether they’re making the best financial decision when it comes to providing health care for their employees.

If you want to learn more about what the Affordable Care Act means for small business owners, check out the Kaiser Family Foundation for Small Employers and their Employees at