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Obamacare enrollment ticks up slightly with 2 weeks left

With Obamacare's third sign-up season heading to the finish line, the federal health insurance market last week saw a modest rise in customers, as officials warned of higher penalties this year, and tougher offseason enrollment rules.

A couple enrolls in Obamacare with an insurance agent in Atlanta.
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A couple enrolls in Obamacare with an insurance agent in Atlanta.

HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange, as of Saturday had about 8.84 million people who had selected insurance plans for 2016, officials said Wednesday. That was an increase of 153,631 net customers, or more than double the tally seen in the prior seven-day period.

HealthCare.gov serves residents of 38 states.

With at least another 2.7 million or so people signed up for health plans sold by exchanges run by their own states and the District of Columbia, the national tally is now at least 11.5 million.

The current tally exceeds the 10 million national enrollment target that federal officials have set for the end of 2016. But it remains to be seen how many customers will drop coverage from Obamacare plans during the course of the year as they obtain insurance elsewhere, no longer find the plans affordable, or drop Obamacare for other reasons.

Officials expect a last big rush of customers in the next week and a half, in advance of the Jan. 31 open enrollment deadline. Open enrollment began Nov. 1.

"As expected, consumer interest is beginning to increase again as we near the deadline for 2016 coverage," said Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. "We know we have more work to do, and as we count down to the January 31 final deadline, we're focused on making sure consumers understand that they must act soon to find affordable health coverage and avoid the fee for choosing to not have health insurance in 2016."

People who don't have some kind of health insurance by the deadline — be it individual plans, work-based coverage, Medicaid or Medicare, or other programs — face a fine that rises sharply this year. People will have to pay the higher of 2.5 percent of household income or $695 per adult if they lack health coverage.

That penalty means it is "important that every uninsured American understands their options for finding affordable health coverage," said Kevin Counihan, CEO of HealthCare.gov.

The new tally was released a day after federal officials announced the elimination of six special enrollment periods that had previously been available to people who failed to sign up during open enrollment.

The special enrollment periods are being eliminated after criticism from some health insurers who sell Obamacare exchange plans and who claim that they've seen people wait until they get sick to sign up for coverage — and then exit the plans once they get the care they need.

However, special enrollment periods for people who lose insurance due to a job change, who get married or divorced, or who have baby, will still be available this year.

Officials previously had said that 2016 would not have a tax season special enrollment period, which was available to people who only learned of the requirement to have health insurance when they began to prepare their taxes.

The Obamacare penalty is assessed each tax season for the prior year. So if after Jan. 31 someone learns for the first time that they're on the hook for the fine for not having coverage in 2015 they will not be allowed to sign up as they have in the past to avoid the penalty for the current year.