Too few young people are signing up for ObamaCare to stop premiums from skyrocketing, new data released by the administration on Monday shows.
Only 24 percent of ObamaCare's enrollees are young people, according to the new data, well below the 40 percent benchmark set by the administration for the critical 18- to 34-year-old age group.
Thirty-three percent of the 2.2 million who had selected a plan through the exchanges as of December were between the ages of 55 and 64, the Health Department said Monday.
To keep premiums affordable, experts say it is vital that the law attract about that many young and healthy "invincibles" unlikely to need critical care to balance out older and sicker uninsured people who enroll and will be more costly to the system.
The administration struck a confident tone during a conference call with reporters, arguing that the law will work fine at present demographic levels.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pointed to December data in arguing the percentage of young people who will enroll is likely to rise. She said the momentum with young enrollees “was particularly strong” in December, when the administration says it saw an eight-fold increase in the number of 18- to 34-year-olds signing up.
“We expected older adults to sign up early and we expect more young adults to come in by the end of the second enrollment period,” HHS Deputy Assistant Nancy Delew said.
But Republicans quickly worked to discredit the numbers, sending out stories highlighting how the figures fell below the administration's hopes.
“There’s no way to spin it: youth enrollment has been a bust so far," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said in a statement. "When they see that Obamacare offers high costs for limited access to doctors — if the enrollment goes through at all — it’s no surprise that young people aren’t rushing to sign up.”
Officials said they expect young adults to sign up in higher numbers before open enrollment ends on March 31, as many observers expected younger and healthier people would put off enrolling until the last second.
It was also expected that some of the nation's sickest people who were uninsured would rush first to the next exchanges.
The 40 percent benchmark is for the end of March, which gives the administration time to raise the percentage of young people enrolling in ObamaCare, an effort it is advancing over the next three months with a major public relations and advertising campaign.
Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) spokeswoman Julie Bataille said Monday that a “sustained outreach effort” aimed at young people was underway.
In addition to a planned ad campaign during the Sochi Olympics, Bataille said the HHS has conducted or planned more than 2,000 public education activities across the country at music festivals and community colleges where young people are likely to gather.
“We’re only halfway through open enrollment and we expect an increase in proportion of young adults as we go forward,” said Office of Health Reform director Mike Hash.
Delew said the early demographics are in line with what the Massachusetts exchange experienced when it launched under then-Gov. Mitt Romney in 2007.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study released last year said that if 18- to 34-year-olds made up only 25 percent of the pool of enrollees, as they do now, it would be a “worst case” scenario that could lead to higher premiums.
Kaiser also said the administration’s target for that age group should be 40 percent, because that’s the proportion of young adults in the potential market for private plans on the exchanges.
But Gary Cohen, the deputy administrator and director for the CMS, said Monday that a 25 percent target is a more accurate benchmark, because that’s the total portion of 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. population.
Cohen argued that the administration was targeting everyone in that age group, not just the uninsured, because many that were previously insured in the private markets will seek out ObamaCare coverage for less expensive plans or to take advantage of federal subsidies.
The HHS said Monday that 79 percent of those who have selected a plan have received some financial assistance.
Hash said the focus on Kaiser’s 40 percent number has been “overblown” because the report also says that even if the administration only hits the 25 percent mark, there would be no “death spiral” — only a modest rise in premiums next year.
“The demographics we’re reporting are similar to our expectations,” Delew said.