Counselors Sara Calkins, left, and Cathleen Mills-Curran talk to Joshua Tyler, 21, about the affordable care act at Truman College. | Monifa Thomas/Sun-Times
Updated: February 20, 2014 6:34AM
Every Wednesday since September, holidays excluded, health care “navigators” have sat at a table outside the cafeteria at Harry S. Truman College in Uptown in hopes of getting young adults to sign up for options with the Affordable Care Act.
No two days are alike, but “people are definitely interested [in getting health insurance],” said Cathleen Mills-Curran, who was hired by Thresholds, a provider of mental health services, to help people sign up for the ACA. And young people’s interest grows as they get a better understanding of how the law might help them specifically, she said.
Getting young adults to enroll for health insurance plans offered through the ACA is one of the keys to making the law successful.
Last week, four people approached the table saying they were interested, and one person completed the process.
“Is this the Obamacare thing?” one student asked. “I need to sign up because I don’t want to get penalized,” he said, referring to the law’s penalty for not having health insurance after March 31.
Another man, about to walk past the table, said, “I don’t have a job, so I can’t get it.” But he shared his contact information after he learned that not having a job didn’t mean he couldn’t get health insurance.
The White House has said that its goal is to get 7 million people to buy a health insurance plan via online marketplaces by the end of March. Of those 7 million, the Obama administration wants about 2.7 million of the new enrollees in the marketplaces to be cheap-to-insure young, healthy people; without them, there will be too many older, sicker people and costs and premiums will rise.
Figures released for the first time by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this week show that, so far, buyers in Illinois and nationwide have skewed older. But many experts believe that will change as the deadline approaches.
Many young people recognize they should get health insurance, experts said. But the cost dissuades many.
That notion was reflected at Truman and at Harold Washington College, where on Wednesday about 200 young adults attended an enrollment event and more than 80 of them enrolled for insurance.
One of the attendees, Kyle Turner, 36, of North Center, found he qualified for Medicaid, which the law expanded to low-income people without children. He said he went to the event because after quitting his job, he thought an expensive COBRA plan was his only option.
“If I wasn’t getting it for free, I probably would have tried some other alternative route or just gone to the clinic,” Turner said. “I don’t have a job, so it’s not a matter of wanting or not wanting to pay; I can’t get blood from a stone.”
Rolando Berrios, 28, of Lake View, who was at Truman on Wednesday, made similar comments about Medicaid: “It’s free. That’s the first thing.”
Those who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but were eligible to shop for a health insurance plan, possibly with the help of tax credits, were more mixed in their response.
Under the law, individuals and families with income between 133 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level are supposed to qualify for tax credits on a sliding scale if they get insurance through the marketplace. That works out to a maximum income of $45,960 for an individual and up to $94,200 for a family of four.
Some young people who got the tax credit said they were thrilled to pay much less for an insurance plan that covered much more health services than they otherwise could afford. But other young people said they would rather pay the penalty than buy insurance.
Most uninsured people face a $95 penalty — or 1 percent of their household income, whichever is higher — if they fail to obtain health insurance by March 31. The fines escalate to $695 annually by 2016, or 2.5 percent of household income, and are expected to continue to rise.
Rane Silva, 21, of Gage Park, went to the Washington College enrollment event but wasn’t interested in signing up for an insurance plan when told he wouldn’t qualify for a tax credit. He makes $60,000.
“I feel like I’m 21, so it’s not like I get sick a lot. So I will wait until 2015 to see if I get covered through work,” said Silva, who was aware of the penalty.
Whether young people think buying insurance plans on the marketplace is affordable could depend on if they think it’s worth having, one researcher said.
“From a person’s perspective, [affordability] had an element of being an excuse. ‘I don’t think it’s worth it, so I don’t think it’s affordable,’ ” said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She co-authored a 2011 study of how people of various ages view whether health insurance is affordable.
“If I really want this thing, it’s affordable if I get a pretty small subsidy, but if I don’t really want it, it’s only affordable if I get a really big subsidy,” she said.