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Obamacare 'affordability' touted as enrollment starts

With open enrollment in Obamacare plans beginning Sunday, federal officials increased efforts to highlight the affordability and availability of health insurance plans for 2016, and encouraged returning customers to save money by shopping around for better deals.

Officials on Friday also confirmed what CNBC.com revealed on Thursday: that the overall number of plans on the federal Obamacare exchange, which serves 38 states, is decreasing for the first time.

But those officials also said they aren't worried about the 16 percent decrease in the total number of HealthCare.gov plans, because consumers will be able to choose from an average of 50 plans per county, a number that presents "robust" choice and competition. Officials also said that the average number of insurers per state will be close to 10, which is an increase in the average of nine for 2015 enrollment.

And, they said, almost 90 percent of HealthCare.gov customers would have three or more insurers to choose from, with the average customer having plans from five insurers to choose from.

"The marketplace is stable. Consumers continue to have affordable choice in 2016," said Richard Frank, assistant secretary of planning for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS).

HHS released a report Friday detailing data on health plan choices and premiums available on HealthCare.gov for 2016.

Also Friday, the Obama administration released full data files of all Obamacare plan prices for 2016. Those files will give a more complete picture of how prices are rising compared to this year.

The administration until Friday had talked only about the prices of so-called benchmark plans, a closely watched type of Obamacare plan that, on average, is increasing in price by 7.5 percent on average. The prices of benchmark plans help determine the subsidies for which most Obamacare customers qualify.

HHS said Friday that more than seven out of 10 current HealthCare.gov customers will be able to select a 2016 plan that will cost them $75 or less in monthly premiums, after federal subsidies available to them are factored in.

And nearly 80 percent of such customers will be able to select a plan that would cost them less than $100 per month after subsidies. The subsidies are available to people earning between one and four times the federal poverty level, or $11,770 to $47,080 for a single person.

"Open enrollment starts Sunday, and new and returning customers will find quality health coverage at prices to fit their budgets," said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

In a call with reporters, HHS's Frank also noted that returning HealthCare.gov consumers can save significant amount of money on monthly premiums if they shop for a different plan for 2016, and choose less expensive options.

HHS has estimated that about 10 million people will be enrolled in Obamacare plans nationwide by the end of 2016. That is only 900,000 more people than the 9.1 million that the department has projected will still be enrolled in plans sold on government-run exchanges by the end of this year.

Officials have cited the difficulty they face in enrolling the remaining 10.5 million eligible uninsured people into plans sold on those exchanges. Not only are there fewer uninsured people than there were before the launch of the exchanges in 2013, but many of the remaining people without health insurance are unaware of the availability of subsidies to help reduce the costs of their insurance, or are confused about how the subsidies work.

Marilyn Tavenner, the president and CEO of the insurance trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, said "Heath plans are delivering value and affordability for consumers, and as a result, millions of individuals and families will have access to a wide-range of coverage options."

"As consumers shop during open enrollment, health plans will be working around the clock to make sure individuals have the support they need to pick the coverage that best suits their needs," Tavenner said.