Has ObamaCare finally gotten over the hump?

HealthCare.gov is working better than ever. But technical and political challenges still remain.

(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

Following a five-week tech "surge," HealthCare.gov is vastly improved from where it was in October. The difference is like "night and day," according to the White House.

However, while the administration cleared one significant hurdle in meeting its self-imposed December deadline to get the site working for most users, more challenges remain for the health-care law going forward.

The federal insurance exchange site is still partly broken, with problems on the back end resulting in insurers receiving erroneous or incomplete information from would-be enrollees. And on the political front, ObamaCare's critics are by no means backing off their attacks just because of a glowing White House progress report.

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To be sure, the past few days have certainly brought some good news for President Obama and anxious Democrats. The exchange site is working about 90 percent of the time, up from 40 percent in October; enrollments via the site spiked in November to around 100,000, from just 27,000 the month before; and more than 375,000 people visited the site by noon Monday.

The undeniable takeaway: People who couldn't even use the site just a few weeks ago can now shop for coverage.

Coming on the heels of two months of negative headlines detailing the administration's abject failure to launch a functioning website, that's a significant achievement for the White House. Democratic lawmakers had threatened to split from Obama if HealthCare.gov remained riddled with problems, and the rosy news should tamp down a potential revolt.

The site is "no longer a laughingstock," wrote The New York Times's Paul Krugman, adding that "health reform is, almost surely, over the hump."

But allowing users to navigate the exchange site is one thing; getting them enrolled successfully in coverage is another. And in that respect, there are still some pressing concerns.

Due to problems on the back end, HealthCare.gov frequently sends incomplete information to insurers — sometimes even sending no notification at all that people have applied for coverage. Though the administration claims it has fixed the major bugs causing errors with those so-called 834 forms, it has remained cagey on exactly how widespread those errors are. Here's Sarah Kliff from The Washington Post:

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If people can't complete the application process, that would completely undercut the progress the administration has made.

"Until the enrollment process is working from end to end," Karen M. Ignagni, head of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, told The New York Times, "many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage."

Complicating matters, there are only three weeks left to enroll in coverage that will kick in on January 1, 2014. A year-end enrollment surge could overwhelm HealthCare.gov, causing it to again crash. (The administration has been cautiously optimistic about the site's stability, urging users to enroll during off-peak hours.)

Plus, much of the system that will sort out premiums and subsidies for new policies still needs to be built. Combined, that could make for a messy January, with customers complaining about gaps in coverage, and insurers griping about delayed federal payments.

In other words, Obamacare could be in for another round of bad news, further eroding its popularity.

Republicans are betting that is exactly what will happen. Though the GOP has quietly dropped its quixotic bid to repeal Obamacare, the House will hold four separate oversight hearings on the program this week alone.

"After two months of chronic technical failures and despite what the White House says, both the website and the law as a whole as unabashed disasters," the National Republican Congressional Committee said in a statement Monday.

So though the site is improved and improving, the broader battle — in terms of both policy and politics — is still in full swing.