Are glitches scaring off young people from Obamacare?

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
U.S. President Barack Obama hugs a woman after he speaks about the Affordable Care Act in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington

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U.S. President Barack Obama hugs an American the White House says will benefit from the opening of health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, after speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, October 1, 2013. The U.S. government began a partial shutdown on Tuesday for the first time in 17 years, potentially putting up to 1 million workers on unpaid leave, closing national parks and stalling medical research projects. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS HEALTH TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The White House is organizing an aggressive outreach push to make sure uninsured young people purchase coverage on the federal health insurance exchange, which cannot survive without young customers to offset the costs of older, sicker people.

The law’s supporters hope that 18- to 35-year olds will be patient with the site’s many glitches and are banking on the fact that many younger people are planning to wait until the last possible minute to sign up in the first place, when the site will theoretically be fixed.

On Friday, Jeff Zients, who’s been tapped to lead the “tech surge” to fix, told reporters that the glitch-plagued health insurance exchange website will be working smoothly by the end of November. That means consumers will have just a couple of weeks after the website becomes fully functional to apply by the Dec. 15 deadline for insurance that begins Jan. 1. Uninsured people who don’t apply by March 31 will have to pay a fine on their taxes next year.

Administration officials won’t say how many young people have purchased insurance on the federal exchange — which serves as the insurance marketplace for 36 states — so far. Nearly 700,000 people in total have filled out applications to buy insurance since the exchange opened October 1, but the administration won’t say how many of those people were able to actually enroll in plans.

The White House is planning a major outreach effort aimed at young people right around when will be fixed, if Zients’ timeline is correct. The White House is hosting a youth conference in early December, which will bring young leaders from across the country to Washington to learn more about the law in the hope that they’ll spread the word to the coveted 18-to-35 demographic. Young entrepreneurs, student body presidents, local TV and radio personalities and leaders of various youth organizations will be invited, according to a White House official. Administration officials will also show up on college campuses around the country, building on their outreach efforts so far.

That sort of outreach is still badly needed, according to organizers on the ground, who say that a lack of awareness of the law and the exchanges among young people is a bigger problem thus far than the website’s glitches.

Erin Hemlin, an organizer in Houston with Young Invincibles, a nonprofit that is helping young people sign up for the exchanges, said that it’s “eye-opening” how little many people she’s spoken to know about the insurance exchanges. That includes a young college student in Arizona who didn’t realize he was able to purchase insurance now despite his cancer diagnosis, which had made him ineligible for most coverage before the health care reform law passed.

“I think there definitely seems to still be a big need for education and awareness,” Hemlin said. “There’s definitely still a big need for just pure education.”

Despite this, Hemlin has spoken to a handful of young people who have already successfully signed up for insurance on the exchange, after patiently outlasting the site’s technical problems. She said they were “unfazed” by the many glitches.

“Young people are more Internet-savvy and understand that technical problems like that happen with new websites,” Hemlin said.

Hemlin expects to see a “surge” of applications near the Dec. 15 deadline and again around March 31, the last day uninsured people can enroll and avoid a fine on their taxes in 2014. Many young people tend to procrastinate until the last minute, and may flock to the site once it’s working better, supporters hope.

There’s some evidence this could happen from a case study in Massachusetts, which instituted its own law requiring people to buy insurance in 2006. The state saw a flood of applications in the last few days that people could buy insurance and still avoid the fine — and a larger share of those latecomers were young and healthy people.

But groups that oppose the law are hoping that the glitches will keep young people away from purchasing insurance on the exchange. “It’s undermining trust in the law and it will certainly cause a lot of people to think twice about signing up for this thing,” said Evan Feinberg, president of Generation Opportunity. (The group is best known for its terrifying ads against health care reform aimed at young people.) Feinberg pointed out that the comedian Jon Stewart, who has a big following among young people, has excoriated the problems with the federal exchange on his show.

“Young people expect technology to work, and they expect problems with technology to be resolved in a timely fashion,” Feinberg said.

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