Vice President Joe Biden told visitors to a Minneapolis coffee shop on Wednesday that the millions of people likely to sign up for health insurance before a March deadline is "a hell of a start," despite the fact that the federal government probably will fall short of its goal.

Biden, who was visiting Minneapolis for a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser, made an unannounced stop shortly after 4 p.m. at Moose & Sadie's coffee shop in Minneapolis' Warehouse District. He used the occasion to talk about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has been under heavy criticism since President Obama began pushing the reform and has drawn additional ire in recent months after a botched rollout.

Biden said that, despite hiccups, the goal is to sign up 7 million people by the March 31 deadline.

"We may not get to seven million, we may get to five or six, but that's a hell of a start," he said. "I'm here to say thanks."

The vice president greeted cafe staff and customers, including Bessie Alyeshmerni, a 34-year-old U.S. Justice Department attorney who moved home to Minneapolis from Washington, D.C., after the breast cancer she was diagnosed with four years ago spread to her liver. Biden reached across the table and placed a hand on her cheek as she told her story.

Alyeshmerni, an ACA supporter, was initially told she had months to live but now has an estimated three to five years and is optimistic as medical advancements progress. She's insured through the federal government — a good thing, she added, because her chemotherapy drugs cost an estimated $200,000 every nine weeks.

"It would have been a death sentence without my insurance," she said. "One of the most frustrating things is the socioeconomic groups that are told they're not going to make it and it's not because of our technology.

"There's access to relief and they just can't get it and it's heartbreaking. I want everybody to have the same care. The stress of fighting cancer is enough, let alone the stress of figuring out how you're going to pay for it."

Biden then sat at a table with Rachel Lozano, Julie Peck, Karen Kepple and Anna Olson Racer, who had been invited to be there and who have either benefited from the Affordable Care Act or are helping others get signed up. "Don't get up," he said when they stood to greet him.

Biden leaned in, speaking quietly, his hoarse voice difficult to hear over the din of the cafe.

"Look, thank you for what you're doing," he told them, adding that between a serious car accident and brain aneurysm, "I've been a significant consumer of health care, and I'm not bragging about it."

During those hospital stays, "All I kept thinking about was 'Thank God I had all this insurance.' "

The vice president's day in Minneapolis began when Air Force Two landed at 3:30 p.m. at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Biden exited the jet, saluting a young airman standing at attention.

His motorcade headed toward Minneapolis in the deserted northbound lanes of Interstate 35W while southbound traffic slowed to gawk.

Office workers hung out of windows and snapped photos on an unseasonably warm day as the procession rolled through downtown.

From the coffee shop, he was scheduled to head to the private fundraiser at the Bachelor Farmer, a restaurant owned by the sons of Gov. Mark Dayton.

Abby Simons • 651-925-5043