- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

With less than a month left for Americans to enroll in insurance plans under President Obama’s health care overhaul, companies like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt Tax Service may be the administration’s secret weapon in getting people to sign up.

Tax experts are leveraging their busy season ahead of the mid-April filing deadline to advise customers about government-subsidized health plans that are available through the end of March under Obamacare. They’re also providing a suite of online services and call centers to make it easier to sign up for plans under the Affordable Care Act.

“We’ve been saying for a while that the ACA made April 15 the most important day in health care,” said Brian Haile, senior vice president for health care policy at Jackson Hewitt.

One key point tax preparation companies are making is that higher-income taxpayers could face an even bigger fine next year than the $95 penalty for not having health coverage in 2014. Tax experts said the law actually calls for a fine of either $95 or 1 percent of a person’s income above the filing threshold, which could end up being quite large for wealthy filers.

Tax preparers said they aren’t looking to proselytize on behalf of Obamacare, but do want to advise customers about their options. It also behooves them to warn returning customers about penalties for failing to gain coverage.

“You’ve got to deliver the message next year,” said Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president for health enrollment services at H&R Block.

Health insurance has been intertwined with the tax code “for quite a while,” said Gary Claxton, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan group that studies healthy policy, including provisions such as the preferential tax treatment of health benefits people get from their employers.

So, he said, it should not surprise anyone that the tax-prep industry is taking heed of the new health care law.

“The fact they’re making money on it shouldn’t surprise anyone either, because this is America,” he added.

The industry’s involvement underscores the business potential and inherent challenges to selling a complex law like Mr. Obama’s overhaul of American health care. The venture should bring in new customers and profits, but it’s difficult to cut through the confusion that has permeated the law’s rollout.

Some clients are unaware of the “individual mandate” that requires all Americans to hold health insurance. The administration plans to enforce the penalty for 2014 during the spring 2015 tax season, when filers will have to attest that they hold health coverage.

Jennifer Reese, an uninsured 50-year-old who visited a free health clinic in Buena Vista, Va., this month for dental work, said she and her husband planned to review Obamacare plans in the coming days because someone they met at a tax preparation office offered to help.

“He just said that everybody had to have the insurance and he would like to meet with us,” she said.

The companies are web-savvy, too. H&R Block launched a sleek website, helpth.com, with licensed web broker GoHealth to help customers browse and select plans. Its home page doesn’t mention the Affordable Care Act by name, but it does have a section on “Making sense of health care reform in a way that actually makes sense.”

A footnote on the site makes clear that customers will not have to pay more for the service, although H&R Block will make commissions on sales.

Companies also are using tax information to see if clients qualify for Medicaid, that government-run health program for low-income Americans that’s been expanded in more than half the states because of Obamacare.

Mr. Haile said Jackson Hewitt will mail in Medicaid forms after consumers review and sign them, and the tax information laid out in front of them gives partnering brokers a head start in helping other customers apply for private coverage.

“Our customers don’t have to touch a keyboard,” he said.

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