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U.S. releases low 2015 Obamacare enrollment forecast

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. administration on Monday dramatically cut expectations for 2015 Obamacare enrollment, saying it aims to have a total of 9.1 million people enrolled in government-backed federal and state health insurance marketplaces next year.

The stated goal, 30 percent lower than a Congressional Budget Office forecast of 13 million enrollees, reflects the government’s latest thinking about new enrollees and returning customers, according to officials who expect the actual number to fall between 9 million and 9.9 million.

Released just before Obamacare’s three-month 2015 open enrollment period begins Saturday, the forecast suggests that the administration was shifting goalposts in the face of approaching challenges from a newly elected Republican Senate majority and a potentially devastating legal case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told a think tank forum that she wanted to be transparent about her team’s expectations.

Analysts said the lower numbers show the administration recognizes the challenging reality it will face during a relatively brief enrollment period. But they added that the smaller numbers could give President Barack Obama a political victory if actual enrollment surpasses the goal.

The administration is under pressure to produce a successful enrollment a year after technical glitches paralyzed the federal website HealthCare.gov, and subjected Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement to months of crisis.

“Open enrollment this year will be a positive experience for the consumer,” Burwell said. But she also tempered expectations, predicting that some things “will go wrong … we will have outages. We will have down time.”

Monday’s estimate follows a potential blow to enrollment after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge over whether subsidies to buy coverage should be restricted to 14 marketplaces run by state governments.

The case could complicate enrollment by fanning uncertainty about whether subsidies such as tax credits will be available to federal marketplace enrollees after the court rules.

CBO predicted the Obamacare marketplaces would have 25 million paying customers by 2017. But the administration assumes that could take two years longer, partly because of a slower shift to Obamacare coverage from employer-based insurance or other private plans.

The administration also reduced its count of 2014 enrollment to 7.1 million people, from 7.3 million in August. Officials expect only about 83 percent of those enrollees to renew their plans for 2015.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Susan Heavey and Lisa Shumaker)

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