Getting young people to embrace health reform

Young people often criticized as whiny, entitled and irresponsible, may now have the most clout in one of the biggest overhauls of the country's health system ever.

Enrollment in President Barack Obama's landmark health reform plan began this week and particular interest is being paid to the country's 19 million uninsured young people, who range in age 18 to 34 and are viewed as key to the legislation's success.

Young healthy people need to buy into the system to help balance the cost of caring for an older population with more health problems who are likely to sign up with less prodding.

"We need a diverse group of people in plans to keep rates reasonable," said Kathy Westcoat, CEO and president of Health Care Access Maryland, a group helping people enroll in health plans. "If all the sick people sign up and not the healthy people, it could affect rates."

Convincing young people could take work.

The so-called invincible generation is often in prime health running marathons, trying Crossfit and other fitness trends and eating anything they want without gaining a pound or spike in their cholesterol. Doctors and regular checkups may not seem a priority and many may believe they can go without.

"They may have a mentality that it is not going to happen to me," said Peter Beilenson, who has started the health co-op Evergreen Health.

Life may get in the way of coverage for those who believe they need insurance. Do they pay the student loan or buy insurance? Can they truly afford insurance if they are just starting out in careers and can barely afford the rent?

A recent poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Studying Health System Change found that convincing young people that health insurance is "a good deal" will have to be a priority.

"They will have to pony up," and decide "whether they think they need it," said Andy Hyman, a senior program director with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Aaron Smith, executive director of Young Invincibles, a national group working to enroll young people in health plans under reform, said most young people want insurance.

"The vast majority know health care is a priority; it's the question of cost," he said.

Smith's group has found that most young people will qualify for subsidies or free insurance under Medicaid based on their incomes. Many have already been able to get on their parents' plans under a provision that allows them to stay on until age 26.

But like many Americans, young people are having a hard time understanding the details of reform and weeding through misinformation. Many aren't aware where they sign up for insurance or how to figure out what it will cost them.

In Maryland, they can sign up on a state exchange, called Maryland Health Connection, that works much like a travel website. Calculators on the site will help determine what subsidies they may qualify.

One group believes the health exchanges may not be the best place for people to buy insurance. Generation Opportunity, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers, is using provocative, and some say misinformation-filled ads, to tell young people to diss Obamacare.

"We are not advocating young people go without insurance," said David Pasch, the group's communications director. "There are plans available on the private market that may be better. I think young people should look at all health care options available to them if they are going to make the smart decision."

Obama tried to appeal to some of the younger generation last week, telling 2,000 students at Prince George's Community College they could sign up for coverage as easily as buying a "a TV on Amazon."

Health care plans will hit spots where young people frequent, including college campuses and festivals.

Another group, Healthy Howard, will use Facebook, Twitter and other social media strategies to reach that generation.