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Sign-ups by customers in Obamacare for the third open-enrollment season beat last year's tally by a modest amount, officials revealed Thursday.
A total of about 12.7 million people signed up for Obamacare plans nationwide during open enrollment for 2016, which ran from Nov. 1 through last Sunday.
That's one million people higher than the 11.7 million people who selected plans by the close of open enrollment in February 2015 — an increase of 8.5 percent.
"We're happy to report it was a success," said Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
She noted that the federal Obamacare marketplace, which serves residents of 38 states, alone signed up 4 million new customers in plans sold by private insurance companies. All told, HealthCare.gov signed up more than 9.6 million customers.
"We knocked the lights out this year," said Kevin Counihan, CEO of HealthCare.gov.
The remaining customers in the national tally came from the Obamacare exchanges run by 12 individual states and the District of Columbia. About 85 percent of the customers on Obamacare exchanges nationwide received federal subsidies that help reduce the cost of their monthly premiums. That aid is available to people with low and moderate incomes.
Burwell also pointed out that more than 17.6 million people have gained health coverage since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, driving the national uninsured rate to below 10 percent. In addition to creating the Obamacare exchanges, which sell individual insurance plans to people, the ACA also funded expanded Medicaid programs by the states for more of their poor residents, and allowed adults under age 26 to be covered by their parents' health plans.
With the new enrollment tally on Obamacare exchanges, Burwell said, "We again see that the ACA is helping millions of people, and has become a crucial part of health care in America."
Burwell told reporters that the enrollment tally announced Thursday shows that Obamacare plans is a product that people "do want and need."
She said that while "some have questioned whether young people would enroll," in Obamacare, "they are."
"This year, we have 2.7 million [HealthCare.gov] customers ages 18 to 34, and the percentage of new customers in that age range is higher than last year, while the overall percentage of plan selections for customers that age remains stable," she said.
The total number of people enrolled in Obamacare plans this year is expected, as in past years, to drift down over the course of 2016 as customers exit the market because they obtain coverage elsewhere, or stop paying their monthly premiums.
Burwell said before the start of this enrollment season, that she expected about 10 million people to be in Obamacare plans by the end of 2016.
That would be modestly higher than the 9.3 million people who were enrolled in Obamacare plans as of last September.
Officials said Thursday they still expected to meet Burwell's target for 10 million paying customers by next December.
"The simple answer is, yes, we feel very good," said Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Obamacare. "We do feel good about being able to hit our target."
Caroline Pearson, senior vice president of the Avalere Health consultancy, said, "While exchange enrollment will meet the administration's modest 10 million person goal, it does appear that growth in this market has slowed."
"Efforts to expand participation in the long term will be important to sustain robust plan participation and support continued improvement in the risk pool," Pearson said.
Obamacare's third season, while not seeing the dramatic gains in customers that were seen in the first two years, also was marked by changes in how people shopped for plans.
For one thing, they shopped earlier, as a group. About 60 percent of HealthCare.gov's new customers, or 2.4 million people, signed up in mid-December to have a health plan that went into effect in January. Just 40 percent of new customers on that exchange met the deadline for January during last year's enrollment cycle.
In the last week of open enrollment this year, almost 690,000 people signed up for plans on HealthCare.gov to meet the final deadline. Last year, about 1 million people had signed up in the final week.
Slavitt said, "I think we did a better job in getting the message out" that people should sign up earlier, when asked to explain the drop-off in the final "surge" rate.
"We made a very concerted effort to try to pull people into December," he said.
Officials also noted that about 70 percent of existing HealthCare.gov customers actively shopped and selected a plan for 2016, instead of passively accepting re-enrollment in their 2015 plan. Last year, about 50 percent of customers actively enrolled.
Officials have urged customers to actively shop because of the opportunity to pick a plan that may be more affordable, and also because the amount of subsidies that people receive can change considerably as a result of changes in the price of certain so-called "benchmark" health plans sold on the exchanges.
People who didn't have some form of health coverage by the close of open enrollment last Sunday face a possible fine of the higher of $695 or 2.5 percent of household income.