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WASHINGTON (News-Press.com)- Participation among Floridians in the federally run health exchange soared to nearly 300,000 as of Feb. 1, even as sign-ups dipped slightly in January from the month before, according to administration figures released Wednesday.

The number of Sunshine State residents who selected a health plan in January through HealthCare.gov was 138,862, down from 140,122 in December.

Overall, enrollment hit 296,892 - highest among the 36 states where the federal government is either running or helping to run the health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

Federal officials emphasized that enrollment nationwide continues to increase. Nearly 3.3 million people had signed up for a health care plan by the end of January, up from 2.1 million at the beginning of the month.

"More Americans are signing up for quality, affordable marketplace plans," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "We're seeing a healthy growth in enrollment."

The federal report doesn't break out how many of those who chose a plan have paid for it, or how many were previously uninsured.

Florida's largest share of participants (32 percent) are between ages 55 and 64. The share of those 18 to 34 grew from 21 percent to 23 percent. The national average is 27 percent.

HealthCare.gov and the state-based online health care exchanges were created under the Affordable Care Act to make buying insurance easier for those not covered through an employer or a government program such as Medicare.

People who don't obtain coverage face a penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their income, whichever is greater. The law makes exceptions for people making $10,000 or less a year, those with a religious objection, and those who would have to pay more than 8 percent of their income to buy insurance.

Initial enrollment was slowed by extensive technical problems with HealthCare.gov after its October launch. Only 17, 908 Floridians selected an exchange plan in October and November combined.

Interest picked up in December as the website improved and the deadline approached for getting coverage that would begin in January.

The enrollment period for getting coverage this year ends in March, when another spike is expected.

The vast majority of the more than 2.5 million eligible Floridians have yet to sign up for a plan. Those enrolled represent less than 12 percent of the Sunshine State's potential market size.

Still, advocates of the law were happy with the latest report.

"We're thrilled with the numbers in Florida," said Damien Filer, a spokesman for Florida CHAIN, a grass-roots organization helping people sign up for coverage.

"We know historically that people really do tend to wait until the last minute," he said. "These numbers have been pretty consistent in Florida and consistently high. And we're really encouraged that ... they're going to go up as the deadline approaches."

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