What Obama should do if he wants young people to sign up for Obamacare

Young people’s views on health insurance
Students Amanda McComas, left, Rose Marie Chute and Sari Schwartz discuss Obamacare with Lisa Fiori, a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, at an education and awareness event on the law on the campus of Santa Monica City College.
(Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images)

Will young, healthy people sign up for Obamacare?

That may be the single most important question for the success of the new insurance program. If young people sign up, the pool of customers will be relatively healthy and rates may stay reasonable. If they don’t, the pool could include a disproportionate number of sick people running up big bills, leading to potentially crippling rate increases.

A poll released Wednesday by Harvard’s Institute of Politics contained what looked like potentially staggering news: Fewer than one-third of uninsured Americans under age 30 say they intend to sign up for health coverage next year.

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When asked if they plan to enroll in the Affordable Care Act, only 25% said yes, the poll found. When asked if they would enroll in “Obamacare,” a slightly larger 29% said yes — one of the few polls to find that Obamacare is more popular than its doppelganger, the ACA.

But wait a minute. There’s another poll out this week, and its findings are dramatically different from Harvard’s — in fact, they’re basically opposite.

When the Gallup Poll told uninsured people that they will face a choice between “getting health insurance” or “paying a fine,” those under 30 reacted quite differently: More than two-thirds (68%) said they’d get insurance, and only 26% opted to pay a fine. (Gallup just called it “health insurance,” not Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.)

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What are the lessons?

First, as any pollster will tell you, the wording of a question matters — a lot. Gallup framed the issue as a choice between getting health insurance or paying a fine. Harvard presented it as a decision to “purchase a private health insurance plan” or not. Memo to President Obama: It may be time to let kids know about the fine, even though it’s the least popular part of the law.

Second, a lot of people, especially under 30, still don’t know much about the ACA. Gallup found that 37% of young respondents said they weren’t familiar with the law, more than any other age group. The fact that “Obamacare” was more popular than the ACA in the Harvard poll probably reflects the same phenomenon: More people know what “Obamacare” means.

And the Harvard poll wasn’t quite as ominous for the ACA as it looked. Almost 1 in 3 young people said they were still undecided about whether to enroll.

One more intriguing finding: In the Gallup Poll, political partisanship appears more important than age in determining whether someone intends to enroll. Among uninsured Democrats, 80% said they’d sign up for Obamacare; among Republicans, only 46% said they’d enroll (and an equal number said they’d rather pay the fine).

In the end, alas, the polls can’t tell us whether healthy young people will opt for insurance or not. As with so much else, we’ll just have to wait and see.


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