Help me: Obama prods young on O-Care

Help me: Obama prods young on O-Care
© Getty Images

The White House is hoping young people will come to President Obama’s aid one more time over ObamaCare, just as they did when they supported him strongly in both his presidential election victories.

The administration is engaged in an all-out push to increase young people’s enrollment in ObamaCare with just two weeks left before the deadline to acquire insurance.


Young people have signed up at a significantly lower rate than the administration had hoped, raising fears among Affordable Care Act advocates.  

The fewer young and healthy people sign up, the higher premiums are likely to rise for older people for whom insurance is more of a necessity.

Still, experts say fears of the law entering a “death spiral” if not enough young people enroll are overblown.

But even so, the need for young enrollees is acute, and it is forcing President Obama to try to reconnect with an important part of his base. He won 60 percent of the youth vote in 2012, but that support is not easily translating into enrollment. 

The administration originally forecast that those between the ages of 18 and 34 would account for 38.5 percent of enrollees. The actual number, for those signing up between Oct. 1 and March 1, is 25 percent.

To boost that percentage, Obama is appearing on shows aimed at younger audiences and subjecting himself to some questions that are hardly in his comfort zone.

While plugging the health law Friday on “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, Obama also defended himself from mockery over the suggestion that he wears “mom jeans.”

“I’ve been unfairly maligned about my jeans,” Obama said. “The truth is, generally I look very sharp in jeans.”

“Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis asked Obama on the comedy show “Between Two Ferns,” “Which country were you rooting for in the Winter Olympics?” after earlier referring to “your home country of Kenya.”

The outreach is intended to bring the number of youthful enrollees up. But healthcare experts say that the current 25 percent level of young enrollment, while less than ideal, is not cause for too much alarm, both because it is likely to grow and because there are safeguards built into the law even if it does not.

The example of Massachusetts’ rollout of a similar health reform law in 2007 indicates that young, healthy people tend to sign up later in the process.

A 2011 study in The New England Journal of Medicine  found that the number of new healthy enrollees in Massachusetts roughly tripled in the month the mandate to buy insurance took effect, the equivalent of this month for ObamaCare.

Even if the percentage of the young stays around 25 percent, experts say the effects will be modest.

simulation by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that if the percentage of young enrollees stayed at 25 percent, premiums would increase by only one or two percent in 2015.

Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the foundation, pointed out that under the health law, premiums are still allowed to be three times higher for older enrollees, which helps insurance companies defray older members’ costs, which are about five times higher.

“If the final age mix ends up looking roughly like it does now, premiums may only have to be modestly higher to compensate,” Levitt said. “I think the risk of a death spiral is quite small or non-existent.”

Another intended safeguard is the law’s “risk corridors,” which some Republicans criticize as a bailout of insurance companies.

Under the risk corridors, the government collects money from insurance companies taking in more than they pay out and distributes it to companies paying out more than they take in. This system is in effect through 2016, and is intended to guard against excessive losses during the uncertain period at the beginning of the law.

Joseph Antos, a health policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Congressional Budget Office (CBO) official, said insurers could come to realize they do not have enough healthy enrollees, but the risk corridors will prevent severe problems.

“Because of the risk corridors they are protected to some extent, and so I think share prices are probably going to drop once the reality hits, but it’s not a death blow,” he said.

Even with the safeguards in the law, the administration is watching the numbers of young people closely and emphasizing that their ranks have been growing recently, however modestly.

The first figure in the latest HHS report highlights that young enrollment has grown from 24 percent in the first three months of enrollment to 27 percent in each of the last two months.

When a CNN reporter last week tweeted that the figure was 25 percent over the whole time period, White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness replied to point out the slightly higher 27 percent figure in February.

Asked about youth enrollment on the day former ‘N SYNC singer Lance Bass visited the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney cited Massachusetts’ late surge, but added, “We’ll see. There’s no question we got off to a really bad start, and that was on us.

“We’ve seen a consistent growth in enrollments and including youth enrollments,” he added. “But we’ll see what comes on April 1st.”