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First week of HealthCare.gov enrollment exceeds half million

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More than 540,000 people selected a health plan on the federal HealthCare.gov exchange during the first week of open enrollment.

A third of them were new to the Affordable Care Act's marketplace.

Millions of people in the 37 states that use HealthCare.gov began submitting applications, phoned into the call center, chose plans and re-enrolled, according to CMS data released Thursday. The number of actual plan selections was almost 81,000 ahead of the first week of last year's open enrollment. Last year 37 states used HealthCare.gov.

The data show that at least for the inaugural week, most shoppers were returning to the federal marketplace to renew or browse for new coverage. Experts say it's essential for people to shop around if they want to avoid large hikes in their monthly premiums. Several analyses show average premiums are going up by double digits for many consumers next year. Insurers had more actuarial data to use, and many exchange members were sicker than expected.

Two-thirds of exchange selections were from people who came back, the CMS said, while last year it was almost a 50-50 split of new consumers to returning ones. The Obama administration is hoping there will be 10 million paying exchange members by the end of 2016, including those who enroll on the state-based exchanges. Someone is considered an official enrollee after they pay their first month's premium.

It appears fewer Hispanic residents are calling in to ask for help or register. During the initial week last November, the federal government tallied more than 101,000 calls with Spanish-speaking representatives. This year it was almost half as much at 52,000. Approximately 19% of the remaining uninsured are Hispanic, and the federal government has emphasized more Hispanic and Latino outreach the past two years.

The 2016 open-enrollment period runs through Jan. 31. People who do not buy coverage will face the ACA's tax penalty.

People who go without health insurance for most of 2016 will have to pay either 2.5% of their annual household income, or a flat fee of $695 per adult and $347.50 per child, whichever is higher. The most any household will have to pay is the national average premium for a bronze plan or $2,085.

Bob Herman writes for Modern Healthcare, a sister publication of Business Insurance.