It's crunch time for Obamacare: With less than four weeks left to sign up for coverage this year through the health law’s insurance marketplaces, consumer groups, insurers, hospitals and state and federal officials are ratcheting up their enrollment campaigns to deliver more people — particularly young adults.
--Enroll America, a nonprofit group with ties to the Obama administration, is sending buses to Texas and Ohio to talk up new coverage options.
--Tenet Healthcare Corp., a large national hospital chain, is reaching out to people without insurance who frequent their emergency rooms.
--The federal government will air ads during the “March Madness” college basketball playoffs that start March 16, and during shows popular with young people, such as Family Guy, The Vampire Diaries and The X Factor.
After months of emphasizing low-cost deals and the value of coverage, officials running federal and state marketplaces are stressing the March 31 Obamacare deadline to enroll. By that date, for the first time, most Americans will be required to have health insurance or risk paying a penalty of $95, or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater.
With more than 4 million people signed up in private health plans since Oct. 1, the Obama administration has recovered from the troubled start of open enrollment when few people could get through healthcare.gov, the federal enrollment portal used by 36 states But polls show that many of the uninsured don’t know they face a deadline – indeed, most know little about their options to get coverage under the law.
Though large signups may pay political dividends to the administration and make it harder to repeal the law, the final month is also about making sure enough young people sign up to balance out the insurance risk pool, which is vital to keep down premiums in 2015 and later years.
“If enrollment is high and more young people enroll, the administration can point to success,” said Paul Ginsberg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change.
Direct Appeals From President, First Lady
The federal government is stepping up advertising on television networks such as ESPN and Fox, and also running less traditional ads on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which are favored by the young. From January through March, it has an advertising budget of $52 million for both traditional and digital media, twice the amount spent in the first three months of the enrollment drive, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
It is also bringing in big guns: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and top White House officials are talking up health insurance on selected radio shows with big followings among African-Americans and Latinos, who are more likely to be uninsured.
On Thursday, the president is participating in a town hall meeting in Washington D.C. on Latinos and health coverage, which will be broadcast by some of the nation’s largest Spanish-language meda outlets, including Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion-impreMedia.
Jon Kingsdale, a consultant who led the Massachusetts exchange when it began in 2006, said the marketplaces should now be emphasizing the deadline and penalty for failing to enroll.
Though previous implementation deadlines have been extended, officials say there are no plans to do that with the enrollment deadline.
Navigators paid by the federal government to help consumers sign up are stepping up their enrollment events and setting up booths at college campuses, libraries and shopping malls.
“It’s all hands on deck,” said Jodi Ray, project director for Florida Covering Kids & Families based at the University of South Florida, who leads over 100 navigators in the state. Florida has the second highest rate of uninsured in the country, with about one in four residents younger than 65, or 3.8 million people, without coverage.
Ray said her organization has added navigators and volunteers in anticipation of a surge in interest. The city of Tampa has opened its recreation centers on weekends to help them sign people up for coverage.
“This is a hard deadline...and consumers will begin to feel that pressure,” she said.
State exchanges in Connecticut and Colorado are adding staffing and hours to retail stories where people can sign up in person.
‘A Lot Of Apathy Out There’
The challenge is immense particularly in areas with high rates of uninsured because getting health coverage may not be part of the culture.
Steve Israel, an insurance agent, last week went to a church in South Bay, Fla., where nearly a third of the residents are uninsured. Only eight of about 75 attendees stayed after the service to hear him talk about new insurance options.
“I think there is a lot of apathy out there,” said Israel, a board member of the Florida Association of Health Underwriters. “And I find people don’t want to spend the money for insurance, no matter what the cost.”
Other agents say they are swamped with people seeking help. “I am seeing a lot of traffic -- both walk-ins and people calling trying to choose a plan,” said Trish Atwell, an insurance agent in Vero Beach, Fla.
Allan Einboden, CEO of the Texas-based Scott & White Health Plan, said he expects March to be the busiest enrollment month. The insurer is using traditional and social media to coax young adults to buy policies, but efforts have been hampered by political TV advertising in Republican primaries in the state.
“The negative energy from that has been a drag---you can’t go on radio or TV without hearing political advertising about how politicians are going to try to repeal the law,” he said.
In Colorado, officials running the state exchange are using a recreational vehicle to travel the state to get the word out.
“We want to make sure people know the urgency here and the deadline that if they don’t buy this month, they won’t be able to buy insurance again this year,” said Myung Kim, director of communications and outreach for Cover Colorado.
In Connecticut, which has already exceeded its first year goal by enrolling 138,000 people (40 percent into private health plans and the rest in Medicaid), officials have expanded hours at two brick-and-mortar stores in New Britain and New Haven. The exchange is also targeting towns and zip codes with high uninsured rates for events at libraries, churches and other places.
While outreach workers are stressing the deadline, they are focusing on the benefits of getting coverage rather than threatening people with penalties for not enrolling, said Jason Madrak, a spokesman for the Connecticut marketplace.
Enroll America workers and volunteers say the penalty for not carrying coverage won’t be front and center, but they will mention it.
“There will be places where we talk about that and if people are not aware that can be useful,” said Executive Director Anne Filipic. “But it won’t lead our messaging.”