By LAURIE KELLMAN and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
WASHINGTON — Planting a paltry number on a national disappointment, the Obama administration revealed Wednesday just 26,794 people enrolled for health insurance during the first, flawed month of operations for the federal “Obamacare” website.
Adding in enrollment of more than 79,000 in the 14 states with their own websites, the nationwide number of 106,000 October sign-ups was barely one-fifth of what officials projected — and a small fraction of the millions who received widely publicized private coverage cancellations as a result of the federal law.
The White House raced to reassure anxious Democrats worried about the controversial program, which they voted into existence three years ago and which seems sure to be a major issue in next year’s election campaigns. The administration, trying to regain the initiative, for the first time indicated a willingness to consider legislation to stave off the wave of cancellations compounding the website technology problems.
Some Democrats are seeking changes in Obama’s signature program, and key Republicans, many pressing for repeal, said even Wednesday’s feeble sign-up figures appeared to be pumped up. The final number — 106,185 people — would be even smaller if it counted only those who finalized their enrollment by actually paying their first month’s premium, Republicans said.
Administration officials and senior congressional Democrats expressed confidence in the program’s future.
“We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is in overall charge.
“Even with the issues we’ve had, the marketplace is working and people are enrolling,” Sebelius said. Responding to GOP critics, she said the first premiums are not due until Dec. 15.
The online, state-level insurance markets were envisioned as the new portal to coverage for people who don’t have health plans on the job. But the federal market was overwhelmed by technical problems when it opened Oct. 1, and the experience of state-run markets has been mixed.
The administration said an additional 1 million individuals have been found eligible to buy coverage on the markets, with about one-third qualifying for tax credits to reduce their premiums. Another 396,000 were found eligible for Medicaid, the safety-net program shaping up as the health care law’s early success story.
For many Democrats, concerns about the cascade of website problems has been compounded by the focus on Obama’s misleading promise Americans who liked their health insurance plans could keep them under the overhaul.
But millions of people are receiving cancellation notices. They have plans that for various reasons don’t qualify for the law’s “grandfather clause” protection against cancellations.
Obama said he’s sorry people are losing their coverage and vowed to find ways to address “holes and gaps” in the law. Advisers originally said the White House was considering administrative fixes, not legislative options.
On Wednesday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney said, “If we can achieve this administratively, we will certainly look at that possibility,” but he added the White House was also considering legislative ideas.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled an all-Democrats meeting today with White House health care officials.
Republicans, meanwhile, are having hearings to keep the overhaul’s problems in the spotlight ahead of an election year.
“It’s kind of interesting to see as Obamacare implodes how everybody’s running for cover,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said, “Obviously, panic has set in on the other side.”
The administration staked its credibility on turning the website around by the end of this month.