“Young Invincibles” and Obamacare: Buzzfeed and Gawker Take On Public Exchanges

December 9, 2013

It’s been a rough couple of months for public health exchanges, many of which have taken heat for technology glitches that have prevented people from accessing them to shop or enroll in health plans. But based on the number of people who have tried, one thing is clear: huge numbers of people want access to exchanges – and a number of them are the younger uninsured.

Some in the media have taken to calling this demographic “young invincibles” – healthy 18-34 year olds who are widely considered crucial for health insurance enrollment if The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to be considered successful.

Why is signing up young people so important? Because to make a profit, private health insurance companies must balance the cost of their aging and ill consumers with healthy ones – people who pay, but do not require much care. A risk pool made up of only older, less healthy people could spell financial disaster for insurers.

Some critics argue that the ACA expects young, healthy people to “pick up the tab” for older, sicker people by paying higher premiums than they would have otherwise with very little benefit.

Supporters suggest this is a false comparison because many young people now have minimal or no plans at all, believing that they don’t need them – hence, the moniker “young invincibles.” Comparing the cost of more comprehensive coverage offered by health plans in public exchanges with skeleton coverage or no coverage at all, they say, is like comparing apples and oranges.

The debate about young people, health insurance, and public exchanges has been going on since the ACA was passed in 2010. What is new is who is joining the conversation about the status of the ACA. You guessed it: young people.

Several weeks ago, for example, BuzzFeed, a website devoted to viral content trending in real time, weighed in on the foundering Oregon health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon. BuzzFeed cautioned its readers that the exchange is optimized only for Internet Explorer, leaving users on other browsers such as Safari or Google Chrome out of luck.

With the subhead, “Good luck, Mac users,” BuzzFeed noted, “Internet Explorer was the most popular web browser in 2003 and was discontinued on the Mac platform a decade ago.”

Ouch.

Still, even as BuzzFeed criticized Cover Oregon for being technically out of touch, the site provided tips for its readers on how to prepare and enroll in health plans on exchanges.

Meanwhile, Gawker, a blog site that explains itself with the tagline, “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” informed its readers that… “the launch of President Obama’s healthcare law was something of a disaster, marred mostly by the program’s broken website. But now we know just how awful the enrollment numbers were from those first few days.”

Gawker then revealed that just six people successfully enrolled in health insurance plans on the first day of operation for the now famously flawed federal exchange website, Healthcare.gov.

Double ouch.

But at least they’re paying attention.

Both BuzzFeed and Gawker focus mostly on pop culture, youth trends and ubiquitous “best of” lists. But it’s a pretty good bet that having entered the conversation about the ACA, they’re going to stay in it.

That’s a good thing because one of the biggest challenges of enrolling young people is not convincing them to do it, but rather informing them that the option is available. A recent survey by the Commonwealth Fund revealed that a large majority of young adults wanted health insurance and that 7.8 million would benefit from gaining new or better coverage under the ACA, but that only 27% were aware of option to buy insurance on public exchanges.

This sizeable knowledge gap has implications for the success or failure of the ACA, but also for the future of this population. Youth-oriented sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker might be just what is needed to bridge that gap.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how many young people will buy health plans on exchanges. That won’t be known until the end of enrollment period on March 31, 2014, when the numbers and demographics of people who bought insurance will be made public.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring to know that in between watching episodes of American Horror Story, a popular horror television series available on Netflix, speculating about Kim Kardashian’s upcoming wedding to Kanye West, young people might actually be reading up on their health care options.

That’s a status update worth sharing/liking.

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