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Biden indicates health-care sign-ups may fall short of target

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MINNEAPOLIS - Vice-President Joe Biden said Wednesday that it would be a good start for the federal health care law if 5 million to 6 million people sign up by the end of March, an acknowledgement that enrollments might fall significantly short of the Obama administration's unofficial target of 7 million.

Biden, who was attending a private fundraiser in Minneapolis, made a brief unannounced stop at a coffee shop and visited with a handful of women who have signed up for coverage. Open enrolment under the federal law ends on March 31, after which people without insurance are subject to federal tax penalties.

Biden acknowledged the rocky rollout of the administration's Affordable Care Act website and the difficulty people have had in signing up. Minnesota has been among the numerous states, along with the federal Healthcare.gov site, to experience rampant technical problems that hampered enrolment.

"We didn't want this to start off as shaky as it did," he said. "But it's complicated."

Before the exchanges launched, the Obama administration projected monthly enrolment targets based on a congressional estimate that 7 million would sign up during the six-month open enrolment period. Signing up enough individuals — especially younger, healthier people — is critical for the insurance pool at the heart of the law to function properly, keeping premiums low for everyone.

Immediately, enrolment figures starting falling behind the targets. Although the pace of sign-ups has picked up substantially, there's still a lot of catching up to do from the initial months. About 1 million enrolled in January — the first time the administration met its monthly target.

Biden acknowledged that "we may not get to 7 million, but if we get to 5 or 6 million that's a hell of a start."

In total, nearly 3.3 million had enrolled through the end of January. That's about 75 per cent of what the administration had hoped to achieve by that point in the open enrolment period.

Biden's office said the four women picked to meet with Biden either signed up for insurance under the federal law, or have worked as a navigator assisting others in the signup process. In the brief conversation, Biden related several health crises in his own life, including a serious car accident and a brain aneurysm, saying he appreciated the sense of security knowing he could count on his insurance.

Dressed in a dark suit with a dark scarf around his neck, Biden briefly worked the room at Moose and Sadie's, located in a trendy urban neighbourhood near downtown Minneapolis. His voice was hoarse, and he was difficult to hear over the coffee shop's din. He did speak up when he spotted a woman with a San Francisco Giants cap.

"They allow you to wear that in Minnesota?" he said.

Biden was attending a private Democratic Party fundraiser at the restaurant Bachelor Farmer. Owned by the sons of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, the restaurant hosted a dinner for President Barack Obama in 2012.

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