Even as Congress took steps Wednesday to eliminate federal penalties designed to encourage people to buy health coverage, officials with the state's MNsure insurance exchange said they continued to see strong demand for health plans.

MNsure shoppers looking for policies that take effect Jan. 1 faced a deadline of buying by midnight Wednesday, the same day the U.S. House and Senate passed a tax bill that would eliminate in 2019 the federal health law's penalty for individuals who lack health insurance.

Insurers worry the change will hurt demand for individual market coverage, but MNsure officials said there weren't immediate signs of a slowdown. Call volume was high and the sign-up pace continues to exceed last year, said Jeremy Drucker, a MNsure spokesman.

"We're seeing good traffic," Drucker said. "We don't see any slackening of interest and demand for health insurance."

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. The tax bill that Congress passed on Wednesday and President Donald Trump is expected to sign would eliminate the ACA penalties for individuals.

The timeline for the change means people who lack coverage this year or in 2018 could still be subject to the penalty unless they qualify for certain exemptions, said Chris Wittich, a certified public accountant with Boyum & Barenscheer in Bloomington.

"It will actually influence people's behavior probably next December," Wittich said.

The health law provision, which is often called the "individual mandate," was unpopular with Republicans who passed the tax bill but was seen by health insurers as central to the ACA's structure.

The health law forces insurers to sell coverage to people without regard to pre-existing health conditions. Carriers believe that without the mandate some people will simply wait to buy coverage until they are sick.

"The loss of the mandate will have an impact ... and not a good one," said Geoff Bartsh, a vice president with Minnetonka-based Medica, in a statement. "We need to see the full picture of the market after this open enrollment to understand who is currently still in the market and who has already left the market to determine the size of that impact."

At the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, a trade group for insurers, chief executive Jim Schowalter also stopped short of predictions, but said in a statement: "Mandate or incentives, carrot or stick, however they want to solve the problem, there has to be a way to make sure people don't just have insurance when they are sick."

For now, MNsure officials continue to report numbers that suggest more people will be covered by policies sold through the exchange next year than in 2017.

As of Wednesday, which was the 50th day of the current open enrollment period, 106,000 people had signed up for private coverage through MNsure. Last year, it wasn't until the 70th day of open enrollment that MNsure announced sign-ups by 103,578 people — the first time MNsure exceeded the 100,000 mark since the state launched the exchange in 2014.

Wednesday was the deadline for people buying coverage that takes effect Jan. 1, but open enrollment continues through Jan. 14. Starting Thursday, people who sign up for plans through the exchange will buy policies that take effect in February.

MNsure is an option for the roughly 166,000 people in Minnesota who buy individual policies. The health plans primarily cover those under age 65 who are self-employed or don't get health insurance from their employer or the government.

Individuals can buy coverage from carriers through MNsure or, in some cases, directly from insurance companies. It's not clear what sign-up levels have been like in the "off-exchange" portion of the individual market, where only Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Bloomington-based HealthPartners sell coverage.

"We know it's been a steady open enrollment period, and interest was starting to pick up as we got closer to the deadline today," said Catherine Scott, a HealthPartners spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

This year, just over half the individual market is buying through MNsure, which features coverage from Blue Cross, HealthPartners, Medica and Minneapolis-based UCare.

Over the years, MNsure's Facebook page has seen plenty of messages from frustrated consumers on key open enrollment days, with people complaining of long waits at the call center and website issues. The number of such complaints was down when open enrollment started in November. On Wednesday afternoon, there were two Facebook complaints about long waits at the call center.

"MNsure phones are always very busy on the last day of a deadline, and today is no different," said Drucker via e-mail. "For most people who call wait times are close to zero. However for some consumers with more complex cases who need to speak with a specialist wait times are in excess of one hour."

Drucker added the potential for waits is one reason why MNsure this year introduced a call center "call back" feature, so people don't have to wait on hold until help is available.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck