Barack Obama

President Obama speaks about the healthcare law at the White House on Tuesday. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press / December 3, 2013)

WASHINGTON — President Obama will urge young people to sign up for health insurance at a White House forum aimed at mobilizing a demographic that is crucial to the success of his signature healthcare law.

Wednesday's youth summit at the White House — and the evening Google chat with White House advisors David Simas and Kal Penn to reach a wider audience — will offer Obama a chance to reengage young people, a White House official said, and the president will make brief remarks.

Young people's level of participation in the new healthcare exchanges will be key to the fate of Obamacare because insurers need younger, healthier adults in the risk pools to keep premiums low.

So far, the picture has been mixed. Polls show demand for health insurance among younger adults is strong, but federal officials have not released demographic data showing what percentage of sign-ups fell within the 18 to 34 age group.

Some states operating their own exchanges have shown strong interest. Although numbers have fluctuated from day to day, officials in Kentucky and Washington state estimated that more than one-third of early enrollments were within the 18-34 age range. In California — where tens of millions of dollars have been spent on outreach — more than half of October sign-ups were among 45- to 64-year-olds, but young adults, ages 18 to 34, made up 23% of enrollments.

Still, the picture is murky in states where leaders are not actively promoting the law. And website problems have tripped up even a tech-savvy state like Oregon — where consumers still cannot enroll directly online and were asked to fill out paper applications.

White House allies insist that they had long planned to roll out their major youth push at the end of this year and in early 2014 — the time when young adults were expected to begin paying more attention to the penalties they would face if they did not sign up for health insurance. (The timing was based in part on the enrollment patterns of the healthcare program in Massachusetts, where sign-ups among young adults increased as the deadline approached.)

Earlier this year, administration officials invited celebrity allies including Amy Poehler and Jennifer Hudson, as well as the heads of the entertainment firm Funny or Die, to a White House meeting to plot a strategy for persuading young people to sign up.

A consortium of outside groups, including the Young Invincibles and Enroll America, have been doing events at college campuses across the nation, encouraging young people to shop for plans on the exchanges. Organizing for America, the successor to Obama’s campaign organization, and Moms Rising have focused on engaging mothers to persuade their adult children to sign up over the holidays.

At the same time, the early problems with the federal website raised anxiety among Obama’s allies about whether tech-saavy young adults would have the patience to enroll despite frequent error messages and long time-outs. Some groups scaled back their efforts.  

Now that the website is operating more smoothly, the greatest hurdle in the next few months may be capturing young people’s attention.

Recent polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that younger adults are confused about the law’s benefits and divided on whether it’s a good thing. In California, Kaiser’s research has shown that many young people who are eligible for subsidies didn’t think they would be — and therefore might not even try to sign up through the exchanges. Groups like OFA, which launched a new mobile initiative Tuesday, will be trying to change those perceptions.

If there is a silver lining for the White House, it’s that young adults reported hearing much less about the law (including its glitches) than older Americans. Now that the website is operating more smoothly, many groups are ramping up their efforts to break through to those consumers.

maeve.reston@latimes.com