'Please stay on this page.' But will they?

More than 6 million people jammed the new federal health insurance website in its first two days online, the White House says.
More than 6 million people jammed the new federal health insurance website in its first two days online, the White House says.John Hart / AP

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By Maggie Fox

It was the same message across the country on Wednesday: “We have a lot of visitors on the site right now. Please stay on this page.” But some experts began to worry that Americans used to super-fast Internet speeds would quickly lose their initial interest in signing up for Obamacare.

The White House says more than 6.1 million people have tried to log on since the online health insurance exchange went live Tuesday morning. What they’re not saying yet, is how many people managed to enroll.

The new health insurance marketplaces are a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act. They’re meant to start getting millions of Americans covered by health insurance for the first time, and to rein in what the federal government calls the worst abuses of the insurance industry.

But heavy demand turned the federal site into one big traffic jam.

“Americans successfully enrolled through HealthCare.gov and State-based Marketplaces on Day 1. Volume at HealthCare.gov continues to be high, with 4.7 million unique visits in the first 24 hours, our call center receiving more than 190,000 calls, and more than 104,000 web chats requested,” the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is running the sites, said in a statement.

“We expect to see similar volume as yesterday, and while this overwhelming interest is continuing to cause wait times, there will be continuing improvements in the coming hours and days.”

The White House said more capacity was being added, but gave no details.

In states that opted to run their own sites, many people could enroll with minimal problems, says Linda Blumberg of the Urban Institute. She’s spent some time cruising the various sites.

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“I didn’t have any problem in Colorado, I didn’t have any problems in Rhode Island,” she said. “D.C. was really zipping along. I went really far through there before I realized I was about to make an agreement to buy health insurance,” she added, laughing.

“Maryland we got into in the afternoon but it was really pretty poky.”

For people living in 36 states, the federal website was the only option. Those states have left the exchanges to the federal government to run, and customers were immediately funneled into a logjam. The wait messages were still there Wednesday afternoon.

People may not put up with this for long, warns Ceci Connolly of the PwC Health Research Institute.

“These individuals are accustomed to going to an online website the same way they shop for shoes and coffee and books and music. Now they think they can do that for healthcare,” Connolly said.

“They are not going to tolerate not being able to make their purchases. This is retail come to healthcare and it is a big, big task.”

CMS spokesperson Alicia Hartinger says it’s not time to worry yet.

“People are successfully completing the entire process,” she told NBC News.

“It’s important to recognize that choosing a plan is a thoughtful decision and people will want to do some research and talk their friends or families to make the best decision for them. For some people, this is the first time they’ve had access to coverage and they’re going to want to shop, compare and in some instances come back in order to make the most informed choice to fit their needs and budget. Many people have waited years, or even decades, for this coverage and they are not discouraged by website slowdowns.”

The federal government says it’s only just getting started with trying to reach people to tell them they can start signing up. People have until Dec. 15 to enroll online for coverage that will start on Jan. 1. They have until the end of March to sign up for 2014.

The administration is enlisting celebrities from Pearl Jam (2.2 million Twitter followers) to comedian Sarah Silverman (4.7 million followers) to help get out the word. Both were Tweeting on Wednesday. “If you want to make sense of the whole healthcare thing, or just want to #GetCovered, check out healthcare.gov. #KnowYourOptions,”  @PearlJam tweeted.

News media are helping for free, encouraged by the political fight in Washington. Republicans in the House of Representatives are refusing to pass legislation to fund the federal government, and have forced a shutdown. They’re demanding various concessions on the Affordable Care Act, all of which President Barack Obama says he’ll veto and which the Democratic-controlled Senate has refused to consider.

The administration has made lemonade out of the online glitches, saying that there is clearly pent-up demand. Connolly agrees but says the tone from the White House may eventually change.

“I am waiting for the messages around the individual mandate,” she said. “So far all of the messaging been to say to people, ‘This now is going to be available to you — why don’t you check it out’. At a certain point it will pivot to ‘Come Jan. 1 there is a requirement that virtually every American carry health insurance.’ That may be a different kind of motivator.”

Tom Costello contributed to this report