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State Auditor Monica Lindeen listens to questions during an Affordable Care Act workshop at St. Patrick Hospital in October 2013.

HELENA – The number of Montanans who signed up for health insurance policies through the “Obamacare” online marketplace rose by 4,000 in February, increasing the total to about 22,500 since the website began in October, federal officials said Tuesday.

While Montana’s numbers are small, the state continues to have one of the higher rates of signups, measured as a percentage of the state population.

About 2.25 percent of Montana’s population had chosen a health insurance policy via the online marketplace as of March 1; the national average is about 1.33 percent.

Those without health insurance have until March 31 to obtain it, or face a tax penalty next year. Federal officials said Tuesday they have no plans to extend the deadline.

Nationwide, some 4.2 million people have used the online marketplaces to choose individual health insurance policies, with an additional 943,000 in February.

The online marketplace is a key component of the Affordable Care Act’s goal to expand health coverage to the uninsured in America, by offering private insurance policies whose cost can be offset by government subsidies.

Federal officials wouldn’t say Tuesday how many of those choosing polices via the marketplace previously had no health insurance.

They said they have that data on people who qualified for subsidies – about 83 percent of those who have chosen policies – but refused to release that information.

In Montana, it’s estimated that 170,000 to 190,000 people were without health insurance last year.

A recent survey by McKinsey & Co., a national management consultant, indicated about one-fourth of those buying policies on the marketplace previously had no health insurance.

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If that number holds true in Montana, only 5,000 to 6,000 previously uninsured people have bought polices via the online marketplace.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius put a positive spin on the latest numbers Tuesday, telling reporters on a conference call that the Obama administration expects many more people to sign up by the March 31 deadline.

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“We expect as Americans learn just how affordable coverage can be, they’ll use the next three weeks to sign up and get covered,” she said.

The administration has said it will consider the program a success if at least 6 million people choose policies on the marketplace by the end of March.

Federal officials said Tuesday they’re gearing up for a last-minute rush of customers to buy policies before the March 31 deadline, adding more reps at federal call centers and expanding the capacity of healthcare.gov, the federal website that’s operating in Montana and about 30 other states.

State Auditor Monica Lindeen, whose office regulates insurance, also said Tuesday her office stands ready to help people having problems signing up for new policies.

“Every Montanan covered under one of these new insurance plans should know that if they have any problems, I’m their first phone call,” she said. “And if you don’t have insurance, and you want it this year, you only have until March 31 to buy it.”

Numbers released Tuesday by the federal government said nearly 40,000 Montanans have gone through healthcare.gov and become eligible to enroll in a plan, but that only 22,542 have chosen a plan.

Only a few states – Idaho, California, Vermont, Florida – had higher signup rates than Montana.

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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Reporter for the Montana Lee Newspapers State Bureau, covering politics, campaigns, health care, energy and more.