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Low enrollment in Obamacare debut

The official Obamacare enrollment numbers are in -- and they're not pretty.
A navigator helps a woman seeking health insurance at an enrollment fair in Portsmouth, NH, Nov. 9, 2013.
A navigator helps a woman seeking health insurance at an enrollment fair in Portsmouth, NH, Nov. 9, 2013.

The official Obamacare enrollment numbers are in -- and they're not pretty.  

The Obama administration announced on Wednesday afternoon that only 106,185 individuals signed up for the Affordable Care Act through state and federal marketplaces during the first month of open enrollment.

A paltry 26,794 people signed up through the federal, glitch-filled website, (which covers 36 states), while 79,391 signed up through the state-run websites, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a report.

The White House initially expected at least 500,000 individuals to sign up during the first month, but the government conceded the numbers would be much lower than that because of the website’s rocky rollout.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that she expects more people to sign up over the coming months. "Even with the issues we've had, the marketplace is working," she said.

She pointed to Massachusetts, which has a similar program in the state, and noted sign-ups there were slow at the start, too. “As more people shop and talk things over with their families, we expect these numbers to rise.”

Indeed, sign-up numbers are historically low and slow. In the first month of the Massachusetts law – signed by Mitt Romney in 2006 – just 123 people signed up for subsidized plans, according to The Washington Post. That number represented just 0.3% of total first year enrollment in the Bay State.

By comparison, the 106,000 signups the White House made public on Wednesday would be 1.5% of the governments’ projected 7 million-person enrollment figure by the end of the year.

HHS also said approximately 26.9 million unique visitors came to the state run-and federally run websites in the first month, and there were about 3.2 million calls to state and federal call centers. And it appears a number of enrolees heeded President Obama's call to use a paper form to sign up for insurance in lieu of the faulty website: 26 percent of the completed applications were filed on paper, the report found.

Despite the modest number of completed sign-ups, the report emphasized that interest in the exchanges is high. Citing a Commonwealth Fund survey of adults who were either uninsured or bought insurance individually, the report said that 60% of respondents were aware of the health exchanges. Fifty-three percent of respondents were aware that financial assistance is available to subsidize the insurance plans. And 58% said they were "very likely or somewhat likely" to visit the health care site to enroll in a plan before the March 31, 2014 deadline.

Some 36% of those applying through state-run exchanges have qualified for Medicaid—and Medicaid enrollment (which is free) has outstripped the purchase of private coverage in some states. That would bad news if it continued, but the report predicted that private enrollment will pick up over time. “The majority of individuals who enrolled in [Romneycare] during the first year were in plans that did not require the enrollee to pay a premium,” the report said. “Enrollment of individuals anticipating paying a premium for coverage is expected to increase as the start date for benefits, Jan. 1, 2014, approaches.”

Meanwhile, the political battle over the health law continues. The House Oversight Committee grilled White House tech officials on the website earlier Wednesday. Republicans argued the Obama administration rushed the site for political reasons.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland skewered Republicans at the hearing, arguing they have no interest in actually fixing the glitch-filled website.

“Nobody in this room, nobody in this country believes that Republicans want to fix this website,” the top Dem on the committee said at the hearing, noting that over the past three years the House has voted more than 40 times to fully repeal or neuter the law. “Now they are attempting to use the congressional oversight process to scare Americans away from the website by once again making unsupported assertions.”

The hearing featured testimony from Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer, who Issa subpoenaed to appear before the committee. The demand drew a swift rebuke among Dems who characterized the subpoena as a witch hunt. The White House had initially said Park was busy trying to fix the site but was willing to appear in front of the committee after the Nov. 30 deadline to have the new online insurance market up and running.  

Park would not directly answer whether the website would be fully working by Nov. 30 but said the “team is working incredibly hard to hit that goal.”

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is unlikely to meet its Nov. 30 deadline of completely fixing the site, which took years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The White House has strongly rejected that assessment. “The challenges we are addressing today are a snapshot of Nov. 12, not Nov. 30,” Health and Human Services spokesperson Joanne Peters said in a statement to NBC News. “We are working 24/7 to make improvements so that by the end of the month so that the site is working smoothly for the vast majority of users.” 

Sebelius also noted on the call that the website is "getting better every day."