Young Adults Remain Enrollment Challenge

Dec 11, 2014

Credit Megan Milanese

Christian Ward lounges on a couch in the University of South Florida student center in Tampa. He props crutches against the armrest and stretches out his leg, which is covered in a cast up to his thigh.

Like a lot of college students, Ward’s parents handle his health insurance. He'll tell you that having it definitely came in handy during his moment of need.

"Well, I'm sitting on a broken leg right now and that was pretty nice to not have to pay for expensive surgeries," said Ward, who is finishing his senior year at USF. "I actually just got a copy of the bill this week and yeah that was nice not having to pay for that."

Ward’s health insurance is affected by the part of the Affordable Care Act that says insurance companies must give parents the option of having their kids on the family plan until they turn 26.

Though many students can rely on their parents for coverage, plenty still need to buy their own plans, mostly on the HealthCare.gov federal insurance marketplace, said Susanna Perez-Field, program coordinator for the Student Health Services Insurance Office at USF.  Enrollment for 2015 is under way until Feb. 15.

"Students have a lot of questions. There's a lot of uncertainty and in terms of how this enrollment period would affect them," she said. "It's really more about how do I do this, and what are my options? Aand how do I get support in seeking those options?"

Between paying for classes and scrounging up funds for the occasional pizza delivery, it can be hard for students to come up with the cash to buy a health plan.

Jodi Ray is project director at Florida Covering Kids & Families, a health care advocacy group that provides HealthCare.gov navigation services in all 67 Florida Counties. She said many students don't make enough money to qualify for tax credits to help pay for a plan on HealthCare.gov.

"We still see students whose income largely depends on student loans, which is not counted as income," she said. "Unfortunately for those students, they then don't qualify for tax credits and cost-sharing."

Shorouk Mohomad is 25. She's a student at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa and works at McDonalds. Her job doesn't offer insurance, so she's on her own. She tried signing up last year, but gave up. She said health plans were too expensive.

"I don't want to say so, but it is unbeneficial," she said of getting a policy. "It is like, just a waste of time and money for them and it's not beneficial for people because I tried it and I thought there was gonna be too much potential, but it is not helpful at all."

Groups such as Enroll America are trying to reach uninsured students like Mohamed.  At a recent sign-up event, organizer Matt Cofer said they continue to make the case that insurance is a good investment.

"We definitely try to go where we think the consumer's going to be and do everything from just knocking on doors, making calls, to walking around with signs," he said.

During last year's enrollment period, the number of uninsured young adults dropped nationwide by 10 percent - more than any other age group. That's 5.7 million young people that now have coverage when they didn't before.

But Perez-Field, the campus insurance coordinator, says it may be difficult to overcome students' attitudes about health care.

"A large number of students don't recognize the importance of health insurance," she said. "They think that they are invincible and that their youth makes them invincible to pretty much anything that they would need health insurance for."

Sabrina Corlette is the Project Director at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms. She says that the key to getting these "young invincibles" to enroll is to make sure they know there's a fine for not signing up.  

In 2014, the penalty was $95 for an individual – or 1 percent of their income. Next year, it more than doubles to $325 per person – or 2 percent of their income, whichever amount is higher. (Link: https://www.healthcare.gov/fees-exemptions/fee-for-not-being-covered/)

"You know people need to understand that that penalty is gonna go up it they don't get coverage in 2015 and that would motivate more young people to sign up," Corlette said.

Back at the USF student center, Christian Ward - the guy with the broken leg - sat next to his friend Ethan Zelinskas. He's also covered under his parents' health plan.

"It's nice to have. I think I would be able to like, at least at the stage I am right now, be able to manage with it but it's a nice convenience that if anything were to happen you kind of have that net," Zelinskas said.

He'll have that net, health insurance coverage through his parents' plan, until he turns 26. After that, he willl have to do his own shopping for health coverage.

--Health News Florida intern Megan Milanese is part of WUSF Public Media in Tampa. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.