By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
Dec 2 (Reuters) - A surge of visitors clogged the U.S. government's revamped healthcare insurance shopping website on Monday, signaling that President Barack Obama's administration has a way to go in fixing the portal that showcases his signature domestic policy.
Facing its first big test since officials proclaimed over the weekend that they had met their deadline to make HealthCare.gov run smoothly for the "vast majority" of users, the site performed markedly better than it did during its disastrous launch two months ago - but was still short of the crisply running insurance marketplace Obama once touted.
By 12 p.m. ET (1700 GMT), the website had logged 375,000 visitors, the White House said, nearly half the 800,000 daily users the refurbished site is supposed to be able to handle.
In states such as New jersey, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas and North Carolina, the rush of traffic led to the deployment of a new feature on the site - a waiting page that said there were "a lot of visitors right now," and put people in line to be serviced, usually within minutes or even seconds.
That was viewed as significant progress for a website that has become the face of perhaps one of the biggest crises of Obama's administration, one that has undermined the Democratic president's promotion of an activist government and threatened to become a drag on Democrats in next year's elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.
But HealthCare.gov's hiccups on Monday fueled questions about whether it will be able to enroll several million uninsured and under-insured Americans in private insurance programs by the end of March - a major goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
More immediately, the website will be pushed further by waves of visitors seeking to sign up for insurance by Dec. 23, the deadline to get coverage that begins Jan. 1.
For all of the efforts by tech specialists to improve the site, officials still are scrambling to repair and install functions on the "back end" of the Obamacare system that are needed to finalize enrollments with insurers. That could create another headache for the administration starting in January, if the enrollments for some who sign up for coverage via the website are not finalized before their coverage is supposed to begin.
"The real challenges remain, and that's downstream," said Rick Howard, research director for the technology consultant Gartner. "The real error rate will be in the billing transactions and how accurate the billing information is and how accurate the premium calculation is."
The administration said that in meetings with insurers and healthcare officials this week, it will refocus attention efforts to nail down functions for handling insurance payments, including federal subsidies for low-income consumers buying coverage under Obamacare.
Without those functions working properly, HealthCare.gov and websites for 14 state-run marketplaces could have difficulty operating in 2014.
At the White House on Monday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged that "the work is not done" on the website.
Carney added that the waiting page that some visitors saw was created in part because officials knew that Monday would put a strain on the system.
"We absolutely anticipated that on this day in particular, because it is the first workday after the deadline we set ... to make sure that the website was functioning effectively for the vast majority of users, we would see a surge in visitors," Carney said.
For the White House and supporters of Obamacare, the encouraging news on Monday was that the pace of enrollments in healthcare programs has increased dramatically since Oct. 1, when the administration's enthusiastic launch of HealthCare.gov was quickly tempered by problems with the website that allowed few people to enroll.
Preliminary government data indicated that about 100,000 people chose a health plan through HealthCare.gov during November, as officials and tech specialists scrambled to improve the site's capacity, according to a source familiar with the issue. In October, only about 27,000 had enrolled via the site.
The federally run HealthCare.gov site handles enrollments for 36 states. The 14 other states and Washington, D.C., have their own exchanges under Obamacare. The state-run exchanges have had fewer technical problems and generally are in states that are most enthusiastic about Obamacare, so their enrollments figures have been relatively high, including 80,000 in California and 50,000 in New York.
Official November data will be released in two weeks. But if the November estimate for HealthCare.gov enrollments is correct, it means at least 290,000 people have signed up for private insurance through the Obamacare exchanges.
That is still far short of the administration's projection in September that nearly 500,000 people would sign up through the insurance marketplaces in the first month, according to documents obtained by congressional investigators.
Ultimately, 7 million Americans were expected to sign up for private health insurance offered through the online marketplaces for 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The website's issues have put that goal in doubt, and administration officials have begun playing down the importance of getting 7 million enrollees in Obamacare for 2014. On Monday, Carney emphasized that the CBO, not the White House, that produced that estimate for total enrollment. (Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; and David Morgan and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Grant McCool)
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"There’s no sugarcoating it: Obamacare is forcing every American to purchase a health-insurance policy they don’t want at a price they can’t afford from a website that doesn’t work."
"No one can identify anything the president could do administratively to keep his pledge that would be both legal and effective," Boehner told reporters. "When it comes to this health care law, the White House doesn't have much credibility."
"It took a hundred years for us to even get to the point where we could start talking about and implementing a law to make sure everybody's got health insurance, and my pledge to the American people is, is that we're going to solve the problems that are there, we're going to get it right, and the Affordable Care Act is going to work for the American people."
"He promised that Americans could keep their health care plans. We were told premiums would go down, that jobs would be created. And we now know these are all false promises."
“Perhaps the most important lesson the president, I think, failed to learn was, you have to tell the American people the truth," Romney said. "And when he told the American people that you could keep your health insurance if you wanted to keep that plan, period, he said that time and again, he wasn't telling the truth.”
"I personally believe, even if it takes changing the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got."