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Making Obamacare less taxing: Preparers sign up clients

Obamacare may not be as certain as death and taxes—yet—but two major tax preparation companies are making a big push this tax season to help customers sign up for now-mandatory health insurance.

H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt Tax Service are partnering with two leading online insurance brokers—H&R Block with GoHealth and Jackson Hewitt with Getinsured. They are now steering customers to those brokers if the clients say they want to enroll in Obamacare insurance after getting their tax returns prepared. Given potential tax penalties under the new law, the companies see it as a natural fit—and a potentially growing service.

At Jackson Hewitt, customers are asked up front, "Do you have health insurance, and, if not, would you like to look at your coverage options under the Affordable Care Act?" said Brian Haile, who heads the firm's health-care reform law efforts.

Tax preparer, left, helps a woman at an H&R Block office in San Francisco.
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Tax preparer, left, helps a woman at an H&R Block office in San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, 34-year-old Leah Beth Brummett heard that question while getting her taxes done at a Jackson Hewitt office in Houston, and thought "it seemed kind of weird to me to mix taxes and your health insurance."

"But it worked out for me," said Brummett, a student and website sales employee who after a decade of going without health insurance signed up at Jackson Hewitt's suggestion with GetInsured that day. She enrolled in an Obamacare plan with a sticker price of $280 per month—but after government subsidies, she'll pay about $28 per month for coverage.

"It was awesome," Brummet said of the short amount of time it took to shop and enroll.

Tax filing season may be the ideal time for buying insurance because about 75 percent of U.S. filers are getting a refund—an average of $3,000 per family—and thus may have money to spend on their first month's premium, Haile said.

"They're cash flush," said Haile, whose firm has 4,000 storefront locations and a presence in 2,600 Wal-Mart stores. And people get in the mindset of "thinking about future spending" when they have their taxes done, he said.

But there is another major reason for tax preparers to focus on Obamacare. Under the health-reform law, the penalty for failing to have some kind of health insurance by March 31 is the greater of $95 or 1 percent of a person's annual adjusted gross income. That penalty will be deducted from whatever tax refund is eligible for next year, and in future years.

(Read more: Obamacare hits 4 million sign-ups as bar lowers)

Despite all the headlines about Obamacare, Haile said, "99 percent of our customers are confused." They are either unaware that the individual mandate to have insurance begins this year, or mistakenly believe $95 is the most they will pay in penalties, he said.

"Most people will pay considerably more," said Haile, adding that the threat of a penalty is a big motivator to sign up.

He said a customer's tax return gives Jackson Hewitt "90 percent of the information we need to complete the application" for Obamacare insurance, which is sold through government-run exchanges. And the average time to get a customer through the application process was just 6.1 minutes as of Wednesday, Haile said.

"People are eager to kill two birds with one stone—it's great piece of mind for people to have both their taxes and health insurance taken care of in one fell swoop," said Chini Krishnan, co-founder and CEO of GetInsured.

Jackson Hewitt refers clients eligible to buy Obamacare from an government-run exchange to Getinsured or tells them how to complete the process at home. Jackson Hewitt also will help enroll customers if their income qualifies them for the government-run Medicaid and CHIP health coverage programs, which serve lower-income adults and children, respectively.

At all of H&R Block's 11,000 offices this season, every customer who gets a tax return prepared is also presented with a tax and health-care review form.

"It's a free service to the client," said Meg Sutton, senior advisor for tax and health-care services at H&R Block, which has set up a website called Helpth to also assist customers.

(Read more: Another Obamacare test: Keeping co-ops afloat)

The form contains two sets of information. The first is what it would cost the customer for the most expensive "silver" Obamacare plan. Silver plans are moderately priced policies and where government subsidies have the maximum effect.

"We're working very hard right now to educate all of our clients and have them understand that this is an option, and if you take that option, here's what it's going to look like," Sutton said.

The customers are also told how much they would pay in penalties for failing to have insurance in 2014, in 2015 and then in 2016.

For 2015, the penalty increases to $325 per person, or 2 percent of income, whichever is greater, and then in 2016 rises to $695 per person or 2.5 percent of income.

Customers are "very shocked" when they see those penalties, Sutton said.

If customers decided they want to enroll in Obamacare, H&R Block connects them with a GoHealth representative, who can enroll them over the phone or online.

H&R Block also has launched a pilot program in about 30 offices in Phoenix, Ariz., which are now staffed with insurance brokers who can assist and enroll customers in Obamacare during office visits.

"We are testing this," said Sutton, adding that there are no firm plans to expand the program as of yet.

Both H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt have fee-sharing deals with their respective Web brokers for each client who enrolls in Obamacare as a result of a referral from the preparers. Each of the companies highlights the Obamacare services with in-store signage, and in Jackson Hewitt's case, "it was a substantial part of our TV and radio ads," Haile said.

(Read more: Meet Oscar: A techie insurer primed for Obamacare)

Neither company would disclose how many customers they have enrolled in Obamacare.

But given that tens of millions of people get their tax returns done by H&R Block each year, "I think it could be very large numbers" of people who enroll in Obamacare via referrals by their professional tax preparers, said Brandon Cruz, co-founder and president of GoHealth. He expects this will be more true in future years.

Jackson Hewitt expects other tax preparers will follow suit next year. "I don't have any illusions. I think this is going to be a very competitive space," Haile said.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan.

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