NEW YORK (AP) _ Florida senior citizens pay for their place in the sun when it comes to finding health insurance to fill the gaps left by Medicare.

Sunshine State seniors pay the highest cost in the nation for so-called ``Medigap'' insurance, while residents of Utah spend the least, according to a study released Monday by independent insurance evaluator Weiss Ratings Inc.

Insurers say they charge more in states with large numbers of people on Medicare because they have to pay out more claims.

The gulf in plan prices can be vast.

Floridians shelled out the nation's highest rates, at $1,812 a year for a no-frills plan at American Republic Insurance Co. That's more than seven times what Anthem Life Insurance Co. subscribers in Texas paid, at $242.

Florida seniors who bought the most comprehensive plan from American Pioneer Life Insurance Co. paid $3,985 annually _ three times the $1,126 South Dakotans pay South Dakota Medical Service Inc. for the Cadillac plan.

Because Medicare requires Medigap insurers to offer 10 standard plans, the benefits for a given plan are identical.

The same company often offers dramatically different prices from one state to another. Pioneer Life Insurance customers in Delaware pay the least in the nation for Plan D, at $402, and the most for the identical plan in Florida, at $1,971.

``Prices for Medigap policies for Pioneer and other companies vary based on a company's experience within that jurisdiction,'' said Jim Rosensteele, a spokesman for Pioneer's parent Conseco of Carmel, Ind.

``Pioneer would be very competitively priced nationwide.''

The company offered six of the 10 most expensive plans on the Weiss list.

``The bottom line is it's hard to establish what company is most expensive or least expensive nationwide,'' Weiss Ratings founder Martin Weiss said. ``One thing we can say for sure is you really have to shop, because the price variation between one company and another company with the same plan in the same state can be huge.''

Insurers say the price differences sometimes occur because one company charges everyone the same rate, while others charge a higher rate for higher-risk patients.

``Some of it clearly, when you're comparing state to state, may also reflect changes in health care costs in those states _ although Texas at $241 is flabbergasting,'' said Gerry Smolka, a senior analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons.

Medigap coverage, bought privately by about 78 percent of Medicare beneficiaries or their former employers, supplements Medicare benefits and pays co-payments and deductibles.

American Republic and American Pioneer, which offered the remaining four most expensive plans on the Weiss list, did not return calls for comment.

The survey, based on 6,118 price quotes by 153 insurers in 50 states and the District of Columbia, compared costs for a 65-year-old male as of last month. Medigap insurers must cover anyone who applies within six months of becoming eligible for Medicare.

The news comes as seniors battle a proposal by President Clinton to raise Medicare costs for elderly couples with annual incomes over $75,000.

The AARP in particular has been aggressive in criticizing higher costs, saying seniors have been increasingly burdened in recent years. Medigap premiums rose by an average of 13 percent this year, following a 27 percent jump in 1996.