The first data showing who is signing up for health insurance in the state’s online exchange indicate it needs to attract more people like Kort Havens to improve its chances to succeed.
Havens is a “young invincible,” a healthy 27-year-old with a limited budget — the kind of person needed to help make a health-insurance pool financially sound. Remembering the financial hardship his family endured while he was growing up because of medical expenses, Havens was an eager customer of an insurance plan sold in the exchange.
But figures released Friday from the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange, show that, in the first month of sign-ups, younger people like Havens are outnumbered by older adults in enrolling in private health plans.
That was one of the key findings in the report, which contains the first demographic breakdown of early enrollment figures for the “qualified health plans” sold through the exchange and for Medicaid, which is expanding eligibility in 2014.
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Among the 6,351 people who bought qualified health plans during the first month of open enrollment on the exchange, nearly 38 percent were 55 to 64 years old. About 20 percent were in the next oldest group, 45 to 54.
At the other end of the age spectrum, a little more than 5 percent of enrollees were between ages 18 and 25, while nearly 18 percent were 26 to 34. Nineteen percent were 35 to 44.
The figures show that in Washington, as in other states, more older adults than younger ones have moved quickly to sign up for coverage in private plans sold through the exchange.
Exchange officials say these early figures are in line with what they expected.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that older people were signing up earlier,” said exchange CEO Richard Onizuka. He said the initial figures for younger adults, while lower than for older adults, are “very positive” and show “we’re reaching that group.”
Medicaid enrollment figures tell a very different story.
Among the 51,379 people newly enrolled in Washington’s Medicaid program, called Apple Health, the largest percentage by far are under 18. More than 13,000 children were enrolled in Medicaid in October — more than a quarter of all new Medicaid sign-ups.
In contrast, only 46 children were enrolled in qualified health plans, or less than 1 percent of the total number.
Those age 26 to 34 made up the second-largest group of Medicaid enrollees, at nearly 20 percent of the total.
The exchange said it plans to intensify its outreach and enrollment efforts aimed at young adults, who generally use less health care than older adults. It has contracted with a national nonprofit group called the Young Invincibles to target outreach efforts to young adults. They’re referred to as “young invincibles” because many think they won’t need health insurance and are less motivated to buy it, even if they face possible fines for not doing so.
For Kort Havens, the motivation came from his memory, which persuaded him that getting health insurance was more than a good idea.
When Havens was 12, his dad broke his leg and hurt his back working construction in Las Vegas. Health insurance was out of reach financially, so his dad, sole support for a wife and five children, was soon back at work — on crutches, his leg in a cast. “It was pretty bad,” Havens recalls.
Later, his mother began having symptoms that eventually were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. She lost mobility and feeling in her hands and legs, but with a pre-existing condition, she couldn’t qualify for insurance.
“My mom didn’t feel like she could afford any of the treatments… It was terrifying watching her deteriorate.”
Ultimately, his parents were forced to declare bankruptcy, and his mother qualified for Medicaid. After the country’s economic collapse, they traveled around the country — staying wherever his father could get work.
About three years ago, Havens began working at a bank in Seattle. He had health coverage, but the job grated on him. “It was nothing I enjoyed, and I just didn’t feel good about working there.” He was eager to strike out on his own, and take a risk while he was still young.
So he quit his job to start a freelance blogging and marketing business. He searched for insurance, but everything was “extremely out of my budget.”
Meanwhile, every flu or sickness gave him anxiety. “I was hyper-aware of the perils of living without healthcare coverage,” he recalled. “It would have only taken one case of pneumonia or one broken bone to bankrupt me.”
Then he heard about the federal law, the Affordable Care Act. “I was completely ecstatic about it,” he said. “As a freelancer, I could have health coverage!”
On the Washington Healthplanfinder, he decided on a Group Health Co-op plan, and will get a tax credit. He’ll take less than the full amount, which is based on his 2012 tax return, because he’s earning more this year than last, he said. With the partial credit, he’ll pay about $150 a month for a midrange “silver” plan.
“It feels great to know that I have a health-care plan that will work for me in the future and that I don’t have to worry about one illness wiping me out financially,” he said.
Seattle Times health reporter Carol M. Ostrom can be reached at 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @costrom on Twitter. Amy Snow Landa is a Seattle freelance writer. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.