Do not pass HealthCare.gov: New workaround for Obamacare enrollment

Enrolling in Obamacare, by phone

It ain't perfect, but at least it's something.

A private Web insurance marketplace has jury-rigged a system to enroll customers in subsidy-supported Obamacare plans offered on HealthCare.gov.

The workaround by GoHealth.com, which began late Sunday night, requires the company's customers to get on the phone with a GoHealth representative to complete their enrollment.

It appears to be the first time a private Web market has been able to enroll customers in subsidy-eligible Obamacare plans since the launch of HealthCare.gov.

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GoHealth President Brandon Cruz said the workaround was made possible late last week, when a tech team working on HealthCare.gov repaired a "broker-functionality" portion of the site "that wasn't working in the past."

"We stayed up 24 hours a day ever since" creating the workaround, Cruz said.

(Read more: No security ever built into Obamacare site: Hacker)

The time- and labor-intensive requirement of having GoHealth reps spend 30 to 60 minutes on the phone with each customer falls well short of the original plan by federal officials to allow GoHealth and other Web insurance markets to electronically complete such enrollments via their own sites when HealthCare.gov launched nearly two months ago.

But Cruz told CNBC.com that his company wanted to start getting its customers enrolled in the Obamacare plans, rather than having them twiddle their thumbs waiting for fixes required for total electronic enrollment.

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"It's definitely ... an incremental step," said Cruz, whose customer service representatives enrolled several dozen people Sunday night after his site put the workaround in place. "At this point, Web-based enrollment doesn't even work."

"It's far better than having tens of thousands of people waiting for us to call them back at some unknown date" and telling them they can enroll electronically, Cruz said. "At this point, it's getting late. People are sitting around, waiting to get enrolled."

Cruz said customers going to GoHealth's site can window-shop for insurance plans, get a rough sense of their eligibility for insurance and start the enrollment process online. However, when it comes time to actually enroll, and to get subsidy approval, customers need to verbally speak with a customer service rep who will walk them though the process, and confirm their subsidy eligibility with the federal data hub component of HealthCare.gov.

But there are several caveats to GoHealth's fix.

First, the company does not operate in four states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont—a fact that online visitors will be alerted of as soon as they enter their ZIP code on GoHealth's site.

Also, there are eight states whose residents are still not yet able to shop online at GoHealth because of delays the company has had integrating with some insurance carriers. Residents of those states—Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, or West Virginia—will be given directions from the website to call GoHealth reps directly to perform their enrollment on the phone.

(Read more: Another day, two more delays for Obamacare deadlines)

GoHealth's workaround comes as the federal government is scrambling to fix HealthCare.gov well enough so that it can sign up potentially millions of people in Obamacare insurance, and as federal officials take other steps to have individual insurers and private Web markets directly enroll people in those plans without customers having to interface with the HealthCare.gov enrollment and shopping portal.

HealthCare.gov is offering for sale competitively priced individual insurance plans to residents of the 36 states that are not operating their own Obamacare insurance exchanges. People whose household incomes fall between 138 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for tax subsidies to offset the cost of the insurance they buy through any government-run exchange.

Last summer, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began signing deals with private Web insurance markets including GoHealth, eHealth and GetInsured to allow them to enroll their own customers in the same plans being sold on HealthCare.gov, and giving them access to the same subsidies available to people who directly shopped through those plans on HealthCare.gov.

In exchange for allowing the Web markets to get the commissions for enrolling those customers, CMS was looking to leverage their marketing muscle to boost enrollment in the plans, which in turn would make it more likely that premiums would be kept more affordable.

(Read more: Lot of gray hairs in California's Obamacare numbers)

But even before HealthCare.gov launched Oct. 1, its software problems have prevented the private Web markets from signing up people in subsidy-qualified plans. Without the participation of the private markets, HealthCare.gov's enrollment in the first month of operation didn't even reach 27,000 people—a number less than 10 times what officials originally projected enrollment in that month would be.

Last week, CMS officials said that "in coming days" those private markets would be able to start enrolling people because of software fixes being made.

However, GoHealth appears to be the only such market doing so, and only with the representative-assisted workaround it began Sunday.

Requests for comment by CNBC.com from a spokeswoman for CMS' parent agency, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, were still pending.

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