Obamacare enrollment takes a breather—for now

HealthCare.gov website seen on Nov. 12, 2014.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
HealthCare.gov website seen on Nov. 12, 2014.

Here's the good news: HealthCare.gov seems to be working well.

On the flip side, less people were using it as they got ready to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Fewer people signed up for Obamacare plans on HealthCare.gov in the second full week of open enrollment than did so the first week, data released Wednesday showed.

There was also a pronounced drop off in the number of people applying for eligibility determinations, and calling the phone center of HealthCare.gov, which serves 37 states, officials said. The drops came during a week, Nov. 22 through last Friday, which included the Thanksgiving holiday.

And the decreases among visitors to HealthCare.gov have come a bit before the Dec. 15 deadline for people to enroll in health coverage for it to be in effect by Jan. 1.

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Experts believe there will be a significant surge of sign-ups for 2015 plans around that deadline. Obamacare enrollment also will be boosted by HealthCare.gov's plan to automatically re-enroll a large majority of customers unless they switch plans or drop coverage on their own.

A total of 303,010 people selected plans on that federal health insurance marketplace in the second week, which ran from Nov. 22 to 28, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In contrast, 462,125 people selected health plans on HealthCare.gov in the first week.

That means 765,135 people in total signed up in just one half-month of this open-enrollment season. The data released Wednesday does not include sign-up or traffic data from the 14 Obamacare exchanges being run by individual states and the District of Columbia.

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About 48 percent of the HealthCare.gov sign-ups have come from customers new to that federal exchange, who include re-enrollments from Nevada and Oregon, since those states turned over their exchange function to HealthCare.gov this year. Another 52 percent are customers renewing coverage on HealthCare.gov.

The enrollment tally to date represents a massive improvement from the level seen when HealthCare.gov opened for business for the first time last year.

In the entire first month of operation last year, just 106,185 selected Obamacare plans in the entire U.S., a dismal result that reflected the serious technological problems afflicting HealthCare.gov and several state-run insurance exchanges at that time.

Navigator Dianelys Dominguez, left, assists Giovanny Vega, 18, of Miami, sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Nov. 17, 2014, at the Borinquen Medical Center in Miami.
Lynne Sladky | AP
Navigator Dianelys Dominguez, left, assists Giovanny Vega, 18, of Miami, sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Nov. 17, 2014, at the Borinquen Medical Center in Miami.

That said, HealthCare.gov has seen a another big drop from its first week this season, when 1.032 million applied for determinations on whether they are eligible to buy insurance on the exchange. In the second week, just 520,427 people filed these applications, according to CMS.

There was also a sharp drop in the number of calls to HealthCare.gov's phone assistance center, from 1.7 million calls in enrollment's first week to just 484,867 calls in its second.

And the total number of users window-shopping for plans on HealthCare..gov dropped from 1.58 million in the first week, to just 716,192 in the second.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said, "The first deadline is just a couple of weeks away on Dec. 15. We're encouraging everyone who is already covered through the marketplace to come back and shop because there could be savings."

"We expect even more consumers to shop and save during the next two weeks," she said.

Burwell's newly instituted practice of issuing weekly updates during open enrollment contrasts with that of her predecessor at HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, who only authorized monthly enrollment updates despite requests by the media, Congress and analysts for more frequent data releases.

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The data release came on the same day that the Urban Institute published a report showing a sharp drop in the rate of people who lacked health insurance from September 2013, right before the Obamacare health insurance exchanges opened for business.

The Urban Institute said that between Sept. 2013 and Sept. 2014, the number of non-elderly adults without insurance fell by about 10.6 million people. And the rate of uninsurance among that same population dropped from 17.7 percent to 12.4 percent—a 30.1-percent plunge.

"Most of the gain in coverage was among the low- and middle-income adults targeted by the [Affordable Care Act's] Medicaid and marketplace provisions," the report noted.

The ACA, which is also known as Obamacare, allowed states to expanded eligibility for Medicaid programs to included nearly all poor adults. More than half of the states have expanded eligibility for that joint federal-state health coverage program for the poor.

Obamacare also gives people earning between one and four times the federal poverty level subsidies or tax credits to help them pay insurance premiums if they buy individual insurance coverage through HealthCare.gov or a state-run health exchange.

Burwell has said she expects there to be 9.1 million people enrolled in exchange-sold Obamacare plans by the end of 2015. Right before the start of this open-enrollment season there were about 6.7 million people enrolled in such plans.

Open enrollment runs through Feb. 15.

Under the ACA, most American adults must have some form of health-care coverage or pay a fine, which is equal to up to 2 percent of their taxable income in 2015.