HONOLULU - A December surge propelled health care sign-ups through the government's rehabilitated website past the 1 million mark, the Obama administration said Sunday, reflecting new vigor for the problem-plagued federal insurance exchange.
Of the more than 1.1 million people now enrolled, nearly 1 million signed up in December, with the majority coming days before a pre-Christmas deadline for coverage to start in January. Compare that with a paltry 27,000 in October, the federal website's first month - or 137,000 in November.
The figures don't include December results from the 14 states running their own websites. Overall, states have been signing up more people than the federal government has. But most of that has come from high performers such as California, New York, Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut.
Still, the end-of-year spike suggests that the federal exchange serving 36 states may be starting to pull its weight. The windfall comes at a critical moment for President Barack Obama's sweeping health care law, which becomes "real" for many Americans on Jan. 1 as coverage through the exchanges and key patient protections kick in.
"We experienced a welcome surge in enrollment," Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a blog post.
The fledgling insurance exchanges are still likely to fall short of the administration's targets for 2013. That's a concern because Obama needs millions of mostly younger, healthy Americans to sign up to keep costs low.
Tavenner said fixes to the website contributed to December's figures. But the problems haven't totally disappeared. Thousands wound up waiting on hold for telephone help on Christmas Eve.
"We have been a little bit behind the curve," acknowledged Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, whose state has the highest proportion of uninsured residents. Nonetheless, the strong December sign-ups send a message.
"Obamacare is a reality," conceded Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who as House oversight committee chairman has been investigating the rollout problems.
For consumers who selected one of the new insurance plans by Dec. 24, coverage should start on New Year's Day, provided they pay their first month's premium by the due date, extended until Jan. 10 in most cases.
But insurers have complained that technical problems have resulted in the government passing along inaccurate data on enrollees. With a flood of signups, it remains unclear whether last-minute enrollees will encounter a seamless experience if they try to use their new benefits come Jan. 1.
The White House says the error rate has been significantly reduced, but the political fallout from website woes could pale in comparison with the heat that Obama might take if Americans who signed up and paid their premiums arrive at the pharmacy or the emergency room and find there's no record of their coverage.
Officials are also working to prevent gaps in coverage for at least 4.7 million Americans whose policies were canceled this fall because they fell short of the law's requirements. The administration has said that even if those individuals don't sign up for new plans, they won't face the law's tax penalty for remaining uninsured.
A few states offering their own updates have also posted encouraging totals, including New York, where more than 200,000 have enrolled either through the state exchange or through Medicaid. In California, nearly 430,000 have enrolled so far.
A full 50-state enrollment report is due next month. The goal is to sign up 7 million people before the first-year open enrollment period closes at the end of March.