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Government health officials crowed Friday over a big surge of new customers to the federal Obamacare marketplace, which significantly increased the total number of people signed up in insurance plans compared to the same time last year.
By Thursday night, slightly fewer than 6 million people — 40 percent of them new customers — had selected a health plan for 2016 from HealthCare.gov, the exchange that sells private insurance in 38 states, officials said.
That compares to 3.4 million customers who had signed up for coverage on that exchange around the same time in 2015 during open enrollment.
"We're obviously pleased," said Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the federal agency that oversees Obamacare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "It's clear now that many people have been waiting to purchase coverage until this enrollment cycle."
HealthCare.gov's tally does not include enrollment numbers from the 13 other Obamacare exchanges that are being run by individual states and the District of Columbia.
"There was an unprecedented amount of traffic at the call center and an incredible amount of activity on HealthCare.gov," in the days leading up to Thursday, which was the deadline for enrolling in coverage that will be effective Jan. 1, said Slavitt.
"Dec. 15 was the busiest day in history," he said. "We signed up 600,000 people in health coverage in just 24 hours."
For many hours on Tuesday, "we were signing up 11 consumers every second" on HealthCare.gov, Slavitt said. And the site's telephone call center fielded 2 million calls on Monday and Tuesday.
He said that in the five days leading up to the deadline "an astounding 48 percent of the 1.8 million consumers who were enrolled were new consumers," and in the last two days, 60 percent of the sign-ups came from new customers.
There are six more weeks in this open enrollment season, Obamacare's third, before it ends Jan. 31. Enrollment for 2016 plans began Nov. 1.
The enrollment tally will soon get a large boost when a number of current Obamacare customers are automatically re-enrolled in their plans for 2016. Slavitt did not disclose how many such people, who did not actively shop on the exchange yet, are expected to be automatically re-enrolled.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most Americans must be enrolled in some form of health coverage by the date or be subject to a potential fine, which in 2016 will increase significantly to as much as 2.5 percent of household income.
The 5.97 million people who have signed up so far came as good news to Slavitt and other officials because, among other things, they have been cautious in their predictions for total Obamacare enrollment for 2016.
In particular, they were happy about the number of new customers, 2.4 million. That is one-third more than the amount of new customers seen at the same time last year.
Slavitt's boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, has said she expects 10 million people to be paying customers of Obamacare plans nationwide by next December, which would include state exchange enrollment. That would represent just modest gains to the 9.9 million or so people who are believed to be paying customers as of now.
Asked Friday if the number of current sign-ups has led officials to raise their enrollment target, Slavitt said, that the information is "too new" and "too fresh" to make such an adjustment.
"We haven't begun to think about things like projections," he said.
Kevin Counihan, CEO of HealthCare.gov, said, "No one is running any victory laps. There's still work to do."
He noted that health officials are "targeting a tougher segment of the population to attract," a reference to the 10.5 million or so eligible uninsured people, many of whom are low income and have little familiarity with buying and using health insurance.
But, he added, 'We're encouraged by the results we've seen so far. "
Counihan said he was also pleased by the fact that many returning customers were actively shopping for insurance instead of passively accepting re-enrollment, or opting out of coverage for next year.
"Since open enrollment began, the majority of our current marketplace consumers came back to shop and actively selected a plan for 2016, compared to last year, when we had about a third of consumers return and actively select a plan by the Dec. 15 deadline, " he said.
Counihan on Friday noted that more than 8 out of 10 Obamacare exchange customers qualify for subsidies that help offset the cost of their coverage because they have low or moderate incomes.
About 7 out of 10 returning customers, officials have said, would be able to enroll in health plans that would cost them $75 or less after those subsidies are factored in.
People who don't have health coverage next year are subject to a potential Obamacare penalty, which is the higher of $695 per adult, or 2.5 percent of household income.
Correction: The 2.4 million new customers is one-third more than the amount of new customers seen at the same time last year. An earlier version misstated this fact.