Obamacare enrollment boosted by in-person help, money

A little "TLC"—and a good chunk of money—went a long way in getting uninsured people to enroll in Obamacare.

Telling uninsured people about subsidies available to them to help buy Obamacare insurance—worth an average of about $3,000 per enrollee—was the biggest single motivator in getting them off the dime to sign up for those plans, the leading Affordable Care Act advocacy group said Wednesday.

Enroll America officials also said that people without health insurance were significantly more likely to sign up if they received repeated contacts urging them to do so, and were offered in-person assistance to actually sign up.

African-Americans and Latinos, who were considered hard-to-reach groups by Obamacare volunteers, in particular were strongly motivated by both repeated "touches" from advocates encouraging them to enroll as well by help offered by in-person navigators and counselors, Enroll America said.

That group announced it had more than 5 million "consumer engagements" since the Obamacare health insurance exchanges launched last October, with the help of 27,000 volunteers and 22,000 outreach events. The group, which spent $7 million on its digital #GetCovered ad campaign, also assembled a list of 635,000 consumers, each of whom had one-on-one conversations with advocates.

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Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, said all of that work paid off Tuesday, when President Barack Obama revealed that 7.1 million people had enrolled in insurance via government exchanges by Monday's deadline. That tally actually exceeded official estimates for sign-ups made last summer, before a technologically botched launch essentially crippled enrollment for the first two months.

(By-the-numbers breakdown of Enroll America's efforts to reach people and encourage them to sign up for Obamacare)

"We're really thrilled," Filipic said about the tally, which was reached after more than 1 million people signed up in the last week of open enrollment.

She noted that even in November, amid ongoing tech troubles of the HealthCare.gov federal exchange, she was optimistic that millions of people would end up enrolling in Obamacare plans.

"We saw even then that consumers were not walking away from the process," Filipic said. And, she said that her group always expected a large surge of enrollment right before Monday, the date by which most Americans were required to obtain some kind of health-care coverage or face a tax penalty next year.

Filipic highlighted several lessons Enroll America learned from its outreach efforts during a conference call with reporters. She also said the group intends to keep applying those lessons in coming months, as it tries to get eligible people to enroll in Medicaid and CHIP programs, and to prepare for a shorter open-enrollment period for 2015 beginning in mid-November.

Consumers, particularly uninsured ones, "become more likely to enroll every time they are contacted by an Enroll America" outreach person, Filipic said.

And while African-American, Latino and young customers as groups started out being significantly less likely to enroll than the average consumer, by the time such people were contacted more than three times they were nearly as likely to enroll on the exchanges as other groups, according to data compiled by Enroll America.

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African-Americans and Latinos were about twice as likely to enroll after a third follow-up contact, and young people were more than twice as likely to sign up after a third follow-up, the group said.

But while friendly encouragement helped, the group said that highlighting the availability of subsidies to low- and moderate-income people to help offset the cost of insurance and out-of-pocket expenses was even more important.

People stand in the line to register to meet with Sunshine Life & Health Advisors, which is selling insurance under the Affordable Care Act at a store setup in the Mall of the Americas on March 31, 2014, in Miami.
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"Letting consumers know about financial assistance was the highest motivator for them to enroll," Filipic said.

In fact, when Enroll America shifted its digital advertising to highlight that assistance, and put a "Get Covered" calculator on its home page to spotlight that help, "We saw interest and response rates immediately soar," Filipic said. Before that, much of Enroll America's messaging had focused on stories of people who had obtained health coverage and benefited from it.

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The group likewise shifted emphasis to place more importance on large-scale enrollment events when it realized that people who received help signing from an in-person navigator or counselor were about twice as likely to enroll than someone who tried to enroll online without any help.

"That effect was even more pronounced in communities of color," Filipic said.

John Gilbert, Enroll America's field director, said, "I think the biggest thing that we took away, speaking in terms of the on-the-ground folks who were doing outreaches ... is that the importance of in-person assistance really can't be overstated when you think about a process than can be confusing for a consumer."

"The reality is that as great as everything was to see in the end, with the amount of excitement and enthusiasm toward the end of open enrollment, I think we could have benefited from having more in-person assistance available to folks," Gilbert said.

—By CNBC's Dan Mangan.