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Obamacare enrollment rises as more youths join in

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a December visit to the Miami-Dade library.
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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a December visit to the Miami-Dade library.

Young adults are increasingly signing up for Obamacare health insurance plans, officials said Wednesday as they revealed that nearly 3.3 million people of all ages had enrolled as of Feb. 1.

"It's very encouraging news," said US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the overall enrollment data, which represents a 53 percent increase in total signups since the end of December, when nearly 2 2 million had enrolled.

"These encouraging trends show that more Americans are enrolling every day and finding quality, affordable coverage in the marketplace," Sebelius said.

Open enrollment in Obamacare closes March 31.

Sebelius said the percentage of enrollees who were between the ages of 18 and 34 grew by by 3 percentage points, to 27 percent, in the month of January over the prior three months, outpacing the increases in all other age groups combined.

The share of young adults among all Obamacare enrollees is now 25 percent, compared to 24 percent by the end of December. That is still well still below the 40 percentage target that some insurance experts have said is necessary to hit to adequately offset the costs from older, sicker enrollees.

A total of 3,299,492 people had enrolled in Obamacare plans between Oct. 1, the opening of the sign-up window, and Feb. 1, according to HHS.

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January's total enrollment was 1.1 million people. That month's tally represented a sharp drop from December's tally of nearly 1.79 million, which came right before the deadline for obtaining coverage as of Jan. 1. But January's total was slightly above what had been originally projected for the month's enrollment by the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO, which had originally projected that 7 million people would sign up for Obamacare by March 31, recently issued a new projection, of 6 million enrollees by that date.

CNBC's own tally of Obamacare enrollment, which also takes into account data reported so far this month by various states, reveals that 3,445,895 people had enrolled in plans nationally as Wednesday.

Sebelius noted that a total of 9.6 million people have either enrolled in Obamacare private plans or been qualified for government-run Medicaid health coverage since Oct. 1. Another 3 million or so people under age 26 are covered by the parents' insurance plans, which is another feature of President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Anne Filipic, president of of the Obamacare advocacy group Enroll America, said, "Based on past enrollment efforts, our research and what we're hearing in the field, we've always said that young people would wait until later in the open enrollment period to make their decision, and we're now seeing that pattern begin to play out."

Ceci Connolly of PwC's Health Research Institute said, "All the trends are heading in the right direction."

"Health plans would like at least one-third of enrollees to be young folks and the January numbers suggest that is within range," Connolly said. "Insurance companies are taking the long view and the latest numbers should give them reason to believe that exchanges provide growth opportunities for the next decade."

Sebelius's spokeswoman, Julie Bataille, said HHS does not have data on what percentage of people have actually paid for the Obamacare plans they have selected. If people don't pay for their plans, their insurance will lapse, thus driving down enrollment totals.

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Bataille also did not have data on what percentage of people who have enrolled were previously uninsured.

Obamacare critics have suggested that a significant number of enrollees are people who were previously insured by individual plans, many of which were cancelled or failed to comply with minimum standards set by the Affordable Care Act. If that's the case, it would suggest that the administration's goal of having the ACA get large numbers of uninsured health coverage was falling short.

However, the Gallup polling firm released data Wednesday showing that the percentage of uninsured Americans so far this year stood at 16 percent, the lowest rate in five years, and a 1.1 percent drop from the first quarter of 2013.

"If the uninsured rate continues to fall over the next several months, it may suggest that the Affordable Care Act's requirement for most Americans to have health insurance, which took effect on Jan. 1, is responsible for the decline," said a posting on Gallup's website detailing the data.

Other details included in HHS's report:

- 1.9 million people have enrolled so far in Obamacare plans sold via the federally run HealthCare.gov marketplace, whose botched launch in October dramatically crippled the first two months of enrollment. HealthCare.gov sells plans in 36 states.

-1.4 million people enrolled in plans sold by 15 other health exchanges run by the remaining states and the District of Columbia.

- 55 percent of enrollees are women, and 45 percent are men.

- 82 percent of enrollees are eligible for federal subsidies to offset the cost of their premiums, and, in some cases, to offset the cost of out-of-pocket medical expenses. That is a 3 percent increase in

- 62 percent of enrollees have selected a so-called "silver" plan, whose premiums are in the middle range of Obamacare exchange plan prices. Another 19 percent have selected less expensive "bronze" plans, whose premium prices reflects the fact that those plans tend to have higher out-of-pocket costs.

Sebelius's spokesoman Bataille on Wednesday firmly said, "No," when asked if HHS has considered extending open enrollment past the March 31 deadline, which is also the date by which most Americans must have some form of health insurance or face a tax penalty of up 1 percent of their income next year.

That question came two days after the Obama Administration yet again delayed the so-called employer mandate, which will require companies with 50 or more full-time workers to offer them affordable health insurance or pay a penalty of at least $2,000 per employee.

That deadline for employers was originally 2014, but was postponed last summer until 2015. On Monday, the administration delayed until 2016 the deadline for employers with 50 to 99 full-time workers. The deadline for larger employers remains 2015.

Republicans have criticized Obama for repeatedly extending or tweaking Obamacare deadlines without the approval of Congress, and in some cases claim he has broken the law by doing so. The administration claims each extension is legal and within the administrative or regulatory powers accorded it by law.

Even as they have criticized the president on such grounds, Republicans have also demanded that the individual mandate requiring people to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty also be suspended, as least for this year. The administration has rejected those calls.

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

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