The Obama Administration Just Set Some Very Low Expectations for This Year’s Health Care Sign-Ups

The Obama administration is setting a low bar for this year’s sign-ups.

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With open enrollment set to start Saturday, the Obama administration is predicting that far fewer Americans will sign up for health insurance through Obamacare’s online exchanges this year than others have forecast. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that between 9 million and 9.9 million individuals will purchase coverage through the exchanges. That includes both new enrollees and people who bought plans last year. The Congressional Budget Office previously projected that the figure would be 13 million, but HHS believes it will take more time for the program to “ramp up,” in part because it expects that Americans will move from their employer-sponsored plans onto the exchanges more slowly than the CBO anticipates.

The CBO also believes that the exchanges will hit a “steady state” of 25 million enrollments by 2017.*  HHS officials said today that they weren’t sure how long it would take to meet that mark, but that it would “take longer than three years.”

Regardless of whether the lower estimate is correct, the announcement is probably a wise move politically. Whether the issue was the effect of stimulus spending or the pace of Affordable Care Act sign-ups, the Obama administration has never exactly benefited from setting high expectations. During last year’s open-enrollment period, it had to deal with the endless media speculation over whether it would hit the CBO’s projection of 7 million sign-ups. It’s better to keep the bar low and clear it than trip over a nice-sounding but maybe overly ambitious target.

*Correction, Nov. 10, 2014: Due to a typo, this story originially misstated that the CBO expected the exchanges to reach 25 million enrollments by 2107.