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Utah's health insurance marketplace for small businesses, Avenue H, has unveiled a new shopping portal that state officials promise will function more smoothly than the problem-plagued federal exchange for individuals.

Companies with one to 50 employees can register now at"> through Dec. 10 to buy health coverage effective in January.

And now they can do it directly, instead of working through an insurance broker as previously required, "making the whole process a lot simpler," said Avenue H director Patty Conner.

The requirement to sign up through brokers safeguarded employees' personal health information from disclosure to their employers. But the Affordable Care Act now forbids health insurers from considering a person's health status when setting premiums, so there's no longer any need to collect such information, explained Conner.

Employers still have the option of working with their broker — just as they always have — but now they have the second option for joining Avenue H directly.

Conner recommends that employers continue to lean on brokers when comparing plans and for ongoing technical assistance, because broker fees are already built into the prices insurers charge. "They're paying for it anyway," she said, explaining that the broker portion of consumers' premiums either goes to a broker or the insurance company.

Launched in 2009 Avenue H got off to a slow start but saw small, steady gains in enrollment in the past two years.

But the looming federal requirement to have coverage by January 2014 or pay a penalty has generated more buzz, more than doubling traffic to the website, said the program's spokesman, Steve Gooch.

"Since Oct. 1 we've had about 42,000 people come to Avenue H," he said.

Just over 6,000 shoppers have used the site's "pre-quote" tool which allows them to get a price estimate without having to fill out a full application.

It's this feature that distinguishes Utah's "shop exchange" from the federal exchange for individuals.

Architects of the federal exchange were loathe to quote prices without estimating discounts, or the tax subsidies that some consumers get to put toward their purchase – which requires consumers to enter all their detailed information up front.

Avenue H doesn't link to the federal site and leaves verification of shoppers' identities to the insurance companies, making it less vulnerable to security breaches, said Conner. "Utah's small- business owners can now register their employer group online and get their employees insured in less than 30 days."