A month into this year’s signup for insurance on HealthCare.gov, federal officials are urging people to enroll before a Dec. 15 deadline for coverage as of New Year’s. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

With less than a week left to buy health plans under the Affordable Care Act for coverage that starts Jan. 1, about one in four existing customers have renewed coverage so far on the federal insurance marketplace, according to new government figures.
The enrollment figures suggest that more people have returned to HealthCare.gov to keep their insurance than at a comparable time last year.

But the numbers also mean that several million customers have not yet signed up for coverage for 2016, even though federal officials have repeatedly said that, to avoid a potential spike in prices, people should shop around for available health plans — and be willing to switch.

Federal health officials on Wednesday gave an upbeat assessment of how insurance-shopping and buying have progressed since HealthCare.gov opened on Nov. 1 for its third enrollment season. They are eager to draw attention now to the sign-up period because experience has shown that many Americans tend to wait to enroll until the days right before the Dec. 15 deadline for coverage starting on Jan. 1.

“We are now seeing a surge of interest, as we get closer to the deadline,” said Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

By last week, 1 million new customers had chosen a health plan. Federal marketing efforts are focusing on 10.5 million uninsured Americans who are eligible to buy coverage on the federal exchange and state insurance marketplaces.

Speaking to journalists, Slavitt said that some consumers are showing sophistication in scrutinizing the details of available plans before choosing coverage. Some 2 million people so far have used new features on HealthCare.gov that allow consumers to search whether a given health plan covers their medicine or includes their doctors. That online searching, Slavitt said, “means that people are not just . . . going with the cheapest plan.”

In mid-2014, Obama administration officials touted the fact that the federal exchange could reenroll HealthCare.gov customers automatically in their current insurance, or similar coverage if that was unavailable, so that they would not need to return to the website. By last fall, however, officials had revised their message, encouraging consumers to shop around for coverage — a message they have intensified this year.

During the last enrollment period, nearly half of the 4.2 million returning customers were automatically renewed. On Wednesday, Slavitt said that those who do not select a health plan before Dec. 15 will be automatically reenrolled. They will then have until Jan. 31, the end of the enrollment period, to change or drop that coverage.

During this enrollment season, federal officials have been trying to balance messages about the advantage of getting health insurance with warnings about the least popular facet of the ACA: financial penalties for not complying with the law’s requirement that most U.S. residents carry coverage.

Under the law, the tax penalties will increase next year. A new analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy organization, estimates that, taking people’s income and family size into account, the average penalty for 2016 will be $969 per household — nearly 50 percent greater than this year.