Nearly 445,000 Floridians enrolled in new Obamacare health plans or renewed their existing coverage during the first four weeks of open enrollment, federal health officials said Wednesday.
No other state using a federally run marketplace had amassed as many enrollees. Texas and North Carolina came closest, signing up about 225,000 and 140,000 people, respectively.
The data mirrors what enrollment groups in Florida are seeing on the ground from experts known as "navigators," who help people sign up.
"Our navigators have been very busy," said Jodi Ray, the project director for Florida Covering Kids & Families at the University of South Florida, the state's largest recipient of federal funding for navigators. "Their appointments have been filling up very fast."
Ray said enrollment appeared to be on pace with the previous two years, when Florida was among the top states in the nation.
Consumers have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1.
The enrollment window doesn't close until Jan. 31. But those who select a plan between Dec. 16 and Jan. 15 won't be covered until Feb. 1, and those who select a plan between Jan. 16 and Jan. 31 will have to wait until March 1.
Anyone who forgoes coverage — and doesn't have health insurance through their employer or a federal program like Medicaid — will face a steep fine. Next year, the penalty will increase to $695 or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever amount is greater.
"The tax penalties are painful," Ray said, noting that $695 could purchase between eight and 12 months of coverage.
So far, more than two million Americans have signed up for Obamacare plans this year.
Of that total, about 700,000 are new customers, according to the figures from the Department of Health and Human Services. The remaining 1.3 million customers renewed their coverage.
HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell had said enrolling new people would be tough this year because the so-called Obamacare holdouts would be hard to reach. But on Wednesday, she said she was "encouraged" by the numbers.
She projects about 10 million people will enroll by the end of 2016.
In the Tampa Bay area, Ray's group will continue to focus on young adults, as well as black and Hispanic Floridians.
Signing up has been easy so far, she said Wednesday.
"We're finding that the process has been much more streamlined," she said, adding that appointments with navigators are much shorter than in previous years.
Jessica Kendall, director of the non-profit Families USA Enrollment Assister Network, urged consumers to consider their options before selecting a plan.
"When you look at all marketplace enrollees, about eight in 10 folks can find a lower-premium plan in the same metal tier by returning to the marketplace," she said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.