Automatic re-enrollments and a last-minute deadline surge lifted the number of Louisiana residents who bought health insurance through “Obamacare” to 179,014 — tens of thousands more than at the same point last year and within range of exceeding 2015’s enrollment.

The Affordable Care Act numbers include “the vast majority of consumers” who were automatically re-enrolled to have health coverage in place Jan. 1, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources.

Consumers who picked a plan in time to secure coverage starting Jan. 1 or were automatically re-enrolled, then discover a better option, can still make a change any time before Jan. 31, the end of open enrollment. That means there’s also time for new customers to sign up for coverage, potentially putting Louisiana on track to exceed the 186,277 total enrollees for 2015. However, those new customers who wait until Jan. 31 to enroll won’t have health coverage until March 1.

Tony Burton, vice president of The Burton Group LLC, said a busy last week of enrollment by Dec. 17 to get the Jan. 1 startup for coverage ended brutally.

“The systems were completely overwhelmed. Two- to four-hour hold times were not uncommon at all,” Burton said. “Around Saturday, they ( weren’t accepting calls at all. The message just said, ‘Enter your number. We’ll call you back.’ The websites were completely locked down.”

It took an entire day to enroll two people, something that usually takes about 15 minutes, Burton said.

Stephanie Phillips, president of the Baton Rouge Association of Health Underwriters, works with large groups but said she helped one person enroll on Dec. 17. Phillips and the consumer spent two hours on the phone with customer service and finished up at 11:30 p.m., just half an hour before the enrollment deadline.

Burton said despite the issues at deadline, did work better this time, and customer service representatives did call back as promised. Burton got one call Wednesday morning saying his client would still be able to enroll for coverage Jan. 1.

“Nine out of 10 of their reps were amazing with the customer service. They were really patient. They were real easy to work with, and if you had problems, you could talk to a supervisor easily,” Burton said.

Open enrollment for 2016 health coverage began Nov. 1. As of Dec. 1, 43,438 Louisiana residents had signed up for health coverage through

HHS extended the enrollment deadline for coverage beginning Jan. 1 by two days, from Dec. 15 to Dec. 17, because of the last-minute crush.

Nationwide, more than 8.2 million people enrolled in health plans through the Affordable Care Act. HHS expects those numbers to increase because the automatic re-enrollments haven’t been completed.

Federal officials, insurance agents and companies say it’s important that consumers shop and compare plans.

By shopping, 75 percent of the Louisiana residents re-enrolling through could save an average of $788 in premiums per year before tax credits.

Although critics have said many of the “Obamacare” plans’ high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs provide little protection for consumers, HHS officials say the 2016 plans remain affordable.

Roughly 82 percent of Louisiana enrollees can find plans with premiums of $75 per month or less after tax credits.

An analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows the average price of silver plans, which cover 70 percent of costs, rose by 11.9 percent while deductibles jumped 25.4 percent to $3,397.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.