Most medium-sized and large businesses already offer health insurance and the requirement was expected to have the biggest consequences for major chain hotels, restaurants and retail stores that employ many low-wage workers. Some had threatened to cut workers' hours, and others said they were putting off hiring.
Business groups complained since the law passed that the provision was too complicated. For instance, the law created a new definition of full-time workers, those putting in 30 hours or more. It also included two separate requirements, one to provide coverage and another that coverage be deemed "affordable" under the law. Violations of either one exposed employers to fines. But such complaints until now seemed to be going unheeded.
There is no coverage mandate — or penalty — for smaller businesses. Also, for businesses of any size, there is no penalty if their workers are poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid.
The delay in the employer requirement does not affect the law's requirement that individuals carry health insurance starting next year or face fines. That so-called individual mandate was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the individual requirement was constitutional, since the penalty would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service and amounted to a tax.
Tuesday's action — announced while Obama was traveling back to Washington from his trip to Africa — is sure to anger liberals and labor groups. But it could provide cover for Democratic candidates in next year's congressional elections.
The move undercuts Republican efforts to make the overhaul and the costs associated with new requirements a major issue in congressional races. Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats to the Republicans' 14, and the GOP had already started to excoriate Senate Democrats who had voted for the health law in 2009.
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett cast the decision as part of an effort to simplify data reporting requirements.