About 60,000 people purchased private health plans through MNsure during this year's open enrollment period, leaving the exchange about 7,000 sign-ups short of its budget goal.

MNsure set a target of 67,000 sign-ups late last year after slashing by one-third its previous goal of 100,000 enrollees during the three-month period for sign-ups.

Private enrollment is important because MNsure withholds a portion of premiums from policies sold on the exchange to cover a portion of its budget.

But Scott Leitz, the MNsure chief executive, said Wednesday the resulting budget shortfall this year is small — less than $250,000 — and won't prompt MNsure to seek additional taxpayer money.

Leitz pledged that MNsure will cut costs rather than seek money from the Legislature if there are future shortfalls in enrollment and the budget.

"We would address it through internal functions here at MNsure," he told reporters following a MNsure board meeting in St. Paul. "We haven't identified specifically where those areas are, largely because we don't know if there will be a gap and, if there is, what size it is."

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, noted that MNsure missed its enrollment target for private plans last year, too. The exchange is running far behind sign-up estimates put before the Legislature when MNsure was created in 2013, she said.

"They're not meeting the expectations that they set, and they keep doing it over and over again," Benson said in an interview. In a prepared statement, Benson said: "I'm hopeful that this report will spur some people into action to fix the health exchange's ongoing problems, or it will quickly become a financial liability to our state."

But Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the tally announced Wednesday was "within shooting distance" of the target.

The miss won't force an increase, Lourey said, to a proposed $11.7 million boost in MNsure spending by way of the state Department of Human Services. The proposed spending for the two-year period starting in July was part of Gov. Mark Dayton's budget request last month, and is linked to low commercial enrollment on the exchange.

Lourey carried legislation to create MNsure and attributed the enrollment miss last year to technical problems at MNsure. Also, premiums in Minnesota remain low, so people here are less likely to qualify for tax credits available only through MNsure, Lourey pointed out.

As premiums rise, more people here will get tax credits, he said, adding: "I think we can bring the enrollment numbers in line for a sustainable future."

MNsure lowered its enrollment goal to 67,000 people after Golden Valley-based PreferredOne announced in September that it would not return to the exchange. The carrier's withdrawal might also have been a factor in the shortfall with the final tally, Leitz suggested Wednesday.

"The enrollment that we got was really in the face of having our largest carrier pull out for this year," Leitz told the board.

But Steve Peterson, a spokesman for PreferredOne, questioned any such link, writing in an e-mail: "MNsure has a track record of not maintaining accurate enrollment numbers."

MNsure's open enrollment started Nov. 15 and closed Feb. 15. During open enrollment, 60,092 people signed up for private plans through MNsure while 26,891 people newly enrolled in the state's MinnesotaCare program. New Medicaid sign-ups came in at 72,017 people, so the overall enrollment tally hit about 159,000 people, according to MNsure. The numbers are preliminary, since the deadline was extended for some who tried to finalize coverage over the weekend but experienced technical difficulties.

The figures suggest that MNsure saw a surge in private enrollment during closing days of open enrollment. They also show that an additional 10,000 people bought private plans this year through the exchange than last year.

While Leitz said he was encouraged by the numbers, he said the MNsure board still might revise enrollment projections that currently have MNsure adding 40,000 more sign-ups next year, and 45,000 enrollees in 2017.

"I think they'll be examining a lot of the underlying assumptions and making sure we're comfortable with where we're at," Leitz said of a board subcommittee on finance. But Leitz and several board members interviewed Wednesday said it was too early to say whether changes are needed.

Insurers have been watching whether MNsure attracts enough young enrollees to help balance the risk for those with medical needs who buy coverage. On that score, MNsure apparently finished about even with last year with about 24 percent of purchasers being between the ages of 18 and 34.

Open enrollment is now closed, but MNsure still has another chance to add some enrollees.

The exchange announced Wednesday a special enrollment period for people who learn they must pay a tax for being uninsured as they file their 2014 taxes.

The special period starts March 1 and will end on April 30. Those who buy coverage will still owe a tax for 2014, but they could reduce or eliminate tax penalties for 2015, according to MNsure.

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck