By David Morgan and Lewis Krauskopf
(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 5:30 p.m. EST, the website had logged 750,000 visitors, the White House said, nearly 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. By Monday evening, officials reported that the site was running smoothly, with no waiting.
That was significant progress for a website that has become the face of 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 coverage by the end of March. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was passed in 2010.
More immediately, the website will be pushed further by waves of visitors seeking to sign up for insurance by December 23, the deadline to get coverage that begins January 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 on the functions needed to handle insurance payments, including federal subsidies for low-income consumers buying coverage.
Without those functions working properly, HealthCare.gov and websites for 14 state-run marketplaces could have difficulty operating in 2014.
America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, has said because of the system's administrative shortcomings, some insurers are receiving inaccurate or duplicative information about enrollees.
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 October 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 choose 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.
Nonprofit groups helping consumers enroll in Obamacare coverage said Monday they were encouraged by the improvements to HealthCare.gov and are starting new efforts to boost enrollment.
AIDS Alabama, which had been relying largely on paper applications to sign people up until last week, noticed major improvement in the website, said Lauren Banks, the group's director of policy and advocacy.
Banks said the website was still not working perfectly - the organization noticed a glitch last week that seemed to produce incorrect information about tax subsidies for low-income enrollees.
Jill Hanken, who runs an Obamacare enrollment program at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said, "We're hearing more success stories" about the website. "I think things have turned the corner."
(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York and David Morgan and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Grant McCool)