When the Affordable Care Act was signed into federal law three years ago, 2014 seemed a long way off.

That's when most of the bill's major reforms will roll out, but back in 2010, opponents were planning on challenging it in court. If that didn't work, Republicans vowed to seize control of the White House and Congress could repeal it. There was plenty of time to scrap the whole thing one way or another.

But none of these came to pass. The Supreme Court upheld the law last summer. President Barack Obama was re-elected. Congress voted more than two dozen times to repeal the bill without success.

Now, as 2014 looms large, business owners around the Lowcountry — and everywhere else — are trying to figure out what they need to do to comply with “Obamacare” by Jan. 1.

“Everything and anything that we talk about today can change before we walk out that door,” Tom Swayne, president of the David Gilston Insurance Agency, told a group of Charleston Metro Area Chamber of Commerce members on Thursday morning during a breakfast meeting about the Affordable Care Act.

It's a fair warning Swayne gives before any talk he makes on the Affordable Care Act — and he gives a lot of them. He also blogs about it.

“There's a lot of conflicting information. There's a lot of contradicting information,” he said. “We don't know what's going to happen.”

But this much is certain: Large employers, those with the equivalent of 50 or more full-time employees who work at least 30 hours per week, don't have to offer their employees health insurance starting Jan. 1, but the federal government will fine them heavily for it. It's called “play or pay.”

Greg Hart, president of Charleston-based Innovative Partners, a hospitality staffing firm, said he feels comfortable that his company is ready to “play.” Innovative Partners will open health insurance enrollment for its employees this fall.

“If we had had this same conversation last October, you would have heard panic in my voice,” Hart said. “We actually now feel like we have a good handle on it and feel like we can help our customers with it.”

Innovative Partners co-hosted a breakfast in April with the West Ashley James Island Business Association about health care reform to help educate other business owners about the basics.

“They have six months to put a plan in place,” Hart said. “It is a bit of a nerve-wracking experience — or can be.”

Pennie Bingham, senior vice president of business advancement at the Charleston Metro Area Chamber of Commerce, said her group plans to take a multimedia approach, including an online video, to explain the Affordable Care Act to chamber members.

“There has been a lot of confusion and concern about the impact and what the options for companies are,” Bingham said. “We're trying to bring clarity to that.”

The South Carolina chapter of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter Society held a meeting on the Affordable Care Act in January. So did the Tricounty Human Resource Management Association. Workplace Benefits, a statewide consulting firm, and the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance both hosted separate meetings in April. There have been many others.

Brian Magargle, a Columbia-based attorney, estimates he's spoken to 25 different groups in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia since 2010 about the Affordable Care Act. Interest in how the bill affects small business blossomed in 2013, he said.

“The reason people are interested now was because everyone was waiting on the Supreme Court decision. Nobody did anything, waiting to see what happened,” Magargle said. “Then everybody waited on the presidential election. If President Obama hadn't won a second term, this would be vastly different. So when those two things occurred … that's when everybody realized this is real.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.