WASHINGTON (CNN) — It’s a welcome sign with a caveat.
President Barack Obama and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are urging people to try again on the problem-plagued Obamacare website, insisting it will work better by Saturday’s self-imposed deadline to improve its performance from last month’s botched launch.
Meanwhile, the administration has been telling its allies to hold off for now on any campaigns to encourage people to sign up right away so that HealthCare.gov doesn’t get overwhelmed once again this weekend.
Officials fear another huge surge in volume that the site can’t handle, which is what occurred around the October 1 launch of new insurance exchanges under Obama’s signature health care reforms.
The November 30 target for website improvements “does not represent a relaunch of HealthCare.gov; it is not a magical date,” said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the federal unit in charge of administering the rollout of the health care reforms. “There will be times after November 30th when HealthCare.gov does not function properly.”
In the latest problem with the website, it will be unable to enroll small businesses online for another year, Bataille told reporters on a conference call.
Small businesses can enroll in other ways in the special small business system known as SHOP, but problems with HealthCare.gov have prevented their online enrollment so far. It was the third delay of the SHOP Marketplace component of the website, this time until November 2014.
Until then, “small businesses will be able to enroll directly in a SHOP plan through an insurer, agent or broker and can get certified for a tax credit after they enroll,” Bataille said.
The Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, doesn’t require companies with fewer than 50 employees to buy insurance for workers, though workers are required to have coverage. If employers choose to provide coverage workers, they may qualify for subsidies to reduce their costs.
“We expect that making direct enrollment, tax credit applications and comparison shopping easier will help to ensure that small businesses can take full advantage of the marketplace and tax credits worth up to 50% of employee premiums in 2014,” Bataille said.
However, the head of the International Franchise Association complained the delay in online enrollment made it harder for small business owners to get all the information they need to enroll.
“With this delay, it will also call into question how the small business tax credit is applied,” said Steve Caldeira, the group’s president and CEO. “Not having the ability to apply electronically will now make this process more confusing, cumbersome and time-consuming for employers.”
Republican opponents of Obamacare pounced on the news, with House Speaker John Boehner urging Obama to delay implementation of the entire Affordable Care Act.
“This law has been an absolute disaster, leaving us to ask ‘what’s next?'” the Ohio Republican said in a statement. “If the President won’t repeal it, he should at least delay the entire law before it wreaks any more havoc on American families and small businesses, as well as our economy.”
Wednesday’s development came as the Obama administration prepared for a potential surge in online enrollment in response to its pledge to have the HealthCare.gov website functioning smoothly for most users by the end of November.
According to a White House official, the administration suggested at a Monday meeting with allies that they not drive traffic to the website in the first week of December, following the November 30 deadline it set for website improvements.
The administration wants to see how the website does before its supporters launch campaign efforts to boost enrollment, the official said.
Recurring breakdowns, error messages and delays botched the federal web portal rollout, opening the reform effort to new and fierce Republican criticism while raising questions about the administration’s ability to manage the health insurance overhaul.
The GOP opposition targets the entire 2010 Affordable Care Act, not just the website woes, as the ultimate example of big government run amok.
Despite the website woes, a new CNN/ORC International poll released Wednesday showed a majority of Americans believe the current Obamacare problems can be solved, and the figures for overall support and opposition remain little changed from a month ago.
HealthCare.gov was originally planned to handle 50,000 concurrent users, and will reach that capacity by Saturday, the White House official said.
However, big spikes in traffic — such as the 200,000 who tried to get on at the same time on October 1 — would cause users to go into a queue to receive an e-mail advising them when to return, the official said.
Luke Chung, president and founder of Virginia-based software development company FMS Inc., said success for the website would be determined by both the number of users as well as how long they are in the system.
He compared it to a highway, noting that 50,000 people traveling 60 miles per hour is smooth traffic while the same number going 10 miles per hour is a jam.
In a conference call Tuesday with state and local officials, Sebelius said “we are definitely on track to have a significantly different user experience by the end of this month — that was our commitment — than people experienced on October 1.”
“We’ve added hardware, we’ve added software; we’re continuing to work on the parts of the website that were too confusing to people,” she continued, urging the officials “to not hesitate to recommend that people go to HealthCare.gov and get signed up because that experience is currently working much better and it will continue to work much better.”
Obama also urged people to go to the website as part of remarks on the economy he made in California.
Enrollment figures for the first month after the opening of the new health insurance exchanges under Obamacare were much lower than initially expected. Now some states have reported stronger numbers.
According to a CNN count based on available figures, just a little more than 200,000 people have signed up for new private health insurance under Obamacare — either through the national system or networks set up in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
In addition, more than 370,000 have signed up for Medicaid under state programs expanded through the health care reforms, the CNN count shows.
The enrollment period runs until March 31 and officials have said the target for the first year was seven million people. To ensure they have coverage starting on January 1, consumers must sign up by December 23, the administration recently announced.
Chung cited December 23 as the most significant deadline, noting that demand would be “huge” because people by nature wait until the last minute to act.
Also Wednesday, seven Democratic Senators including some up for re-election next year asked Obama to appoint a special health care overseer to ensure continuity in efforts to fix the problems.
While Sebelius is technically the top administration official overseeing implementation of Obamacare, former White House aide Jeff Zients was brought in last month to oversee efforts to fix the troubled website. Zients will become a top economic adviser to Obama in January.
In a letter to the president, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mark Warner of Virginia, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Udall of Colorado and Tim Kaine of Virginia called for Obama to name a successor to Zients.
CNN’s Z. Byron Wolf, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.
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