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By Noam N. Levey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Enrollment in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is increasing rapidly, with more than two million people so far signing up for coverage for the first time, figures released Tuesday show.

In addition to the new enrollments, which surpass last year’s sign-up rate, several million more people have been re-enrolled in plans in the law’s second year of expanding coverage.

The new tally, outlined in a report from the Department of Health and Human Services, covers the 37 states whose residents can use a federal website to buy coverage. Several hundred thousand additional sign-ups are expected from 13 states, including California, Maryland and Connecticut, and the District of Columbia that run their own online marketplaces.

The numbers provide an early snapshot of how well the law, also known as Obamacare, will work in 2015. They underscore improvement in how the enrollment process is working this year compared with last, when technology problems made sign-ups on Health.Care.gov virtually impossible for consumers for weeks.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell called this year’s early tally “an encouraging start.”

“People shopped for coverage and signed up, finding more choices and greater competition,” she said.

The law allows Americans who don’t get health benefits at work to shop among plans on new marketplaces operated by the federal government or by individual states.

Consumers making less than four times the federal poverty level — or about $94,000 a year for a family of four — qualify for subsidies.

This year, consumers who already have coverage through the marketplace had until Dec. 15 to go back and shop for plans before they were automatically re-enrolled in their current plan.

Open enrollment continues through Feb. 15, and those who have automatically been re-enrolled can change to a new plan until then.

According to the report, between Nov. 15 and Dec. 19, nearly 6.4 million people selected health plans or were re-enrolled into plans through Health.Care.gov.

About 1.9 million of those consumers did not previously have a plan through the federal website. The remainder re-enrolled. Most them were automatically moved into a 2015 plan, but Burwell said that more than a third had chosen a new plan on their own, a key step that allows consumers to find the lowest-priced option.

Though complete data from states that run their own marketplaces are not yet available, in California, nearly 100,000 people selected plans by Dec. 11, before the process of automatically re-enrolling current plan holders began.

Total enrollment in the marketplaces, although an imprecise measurement, has been watched closely because sustained growth is considered vital to reducing the number of uninsured and keeping premiums in check by getting healthier Americans into the market.

This fall, the Obama administration substantially reduced enrollment targets for 2015, predicting that 9 million to 9.9 million people probably would get coverage by the end of next year. Currently, enrollment trends appear to be on track to outpace that prediction.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which lawmakers rely on to estimate the effect of federal legislation, had predicted that enrollment would hit 13 million customers in the second year of the marketplaces.

About 6.7 million people had health plans through either federal- or state-run marketplaces before the open enrollment period began Nov. 15, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

Overall, surveys suggest that about 10 million uninsured people have gained coverage this year since the marketplaces opened and Medicaid was expanded in many states under the law.

That marks the largest expansion of health insurance coverage in at least half a century and has contributed to a sharp drop in the percentage of working-age Americans who lack insurance. Still, about 30 million people remain uninsured.

AFP Photo/Joe Raedle

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