Insurance with your beer? MNsure courts young uninsured on their turf

Anoka resident Mic-Ryan Freeman, 22, fills out a paper MNsure application for health insurance Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 at the non-profit Nucleus Clinic in Coon Rapids.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

With less a less than two weeks before the Affordable Care Act's deadline for most Americans to obtain health insurance, the Minnesota agency that runs the state online insurance marketplace aims to reach an important group: young people.

People under age 34 are considered key to the long-term financial health of online insurance exchanges like MNsure. But its leaders aren't waiting for young adults to come to them. They're going to universities, breweries and bars ā€” and buying television ads.

MNsure launched the new campaign at St. Paul College on Thursday. In the commons area as students ate lunch, studied or chatted, MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz told reporters that many young people may not think they need coverage if they're healthy, but that's not true.

ā€¢ Q&A with Scott Leitz: 'We're working towards' the goal

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"In 2014 alone, nearly 2 million people were hospitalized for sports-related injuries," Leitz said. "So as young people are off playing sports, the likelihood [is] that something is going to happen to them, which we hope doesn't. But if it does we want to make sure they have coverage to pay for the bills that they do have."

To help drive that message home, the two Somali stars from the Captain Phillips movie, Barkhad Abdi and Faysal Ahmed, will speak Friday in Minneapolis and appear in public service announcements.

"I got really sick and had to go to the hospital," says Ahmed in one announcement. "I had a huge bill and found out how tough it is without health insurance."

MNsure may be focusing on young people's financial health, but the push for young people has a direct bearing on the financial health of the state's commercial insurance market. Premiums paid by young healthy people help pay for the care of older, sicker people.

At St. Paul College, 26-year-old nursing student Amanda Barse said MNsure's idea of going to bars and other hangouts is a good one.

"I think if it's in your face, especially if it's in a fun setting like that when you're just socializing with friends," she said. "You could just go check it out."

Barse said she had a good friend who was ecstatic that he was able to sign up for coverage through MNsure because he had gone without insurance for at least three years.

Nina Goldberg, a 21-year-old student, signed up for coverage through the MNsure site about a week ago. She chose a plan with a $150 month premium and a $1,000 deductible."

"There were a ton of options, so I could actually find something that actually worked," Goldberg said.

Like thousands of others who have tried to enroll, she said the website experience was not a smooth one.

"It didn't work the first couple times and I ended up having to call and get help and then I had to change the Internet [browser] that I was using," Goldberg said. "So I used Google Chrome instead of Safari and that was kind of frustrating, but the person on the phone was super helpful and then I got it."

The median age of those who have so far signed up for private health coverage through MNsure is 48. But only 21 percent of MNsure's private enrollees are age 18 to 34.

Leitz said MNsure doesn't have any specific goals in signing up young people.

To ensure that insurance exchanges have the right mix of potential insurance buyers, young adults should represent 40 percent of enrollees, according to the non-profit Kaiser family Foundation.

Other states looking for young uninsured

Minnesota's insurance exchange is not unique in its quest for youth.

"Pretty much uniformly, across the country as we approach March 31, every exchange is really looking to help balance out that risk pool and attract more young, healthy enrollees," said Elizabeth Carpenter, director of health reform practice at Avalere Health, a consulting firm for the health care industry.

But Scott Keefer, vice president of policy and legislative affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, said the importance of young enrollees has been overblown. He said having a large pool of people enrolled is just as important for keeping premium rates stable.

"The real issue is we want to see additional numbers in the MNsure platform," Keefer said. "I think the numbers have been well below expectations so we very much hope that those numbers increase significantly over the next two weeks or so."

MNsure reports that about 120,000 Minnesotans have signed up for coverage through the state agency. But at least two-thirds of them have qualified for government programs such as Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare. That's a larger chunk than officials had hoped.

Fewer people buying private insurance means less revenue for MNsure, which receives a small percentage of premiums.

For most Americans, the window to buy coverage closes March 31.

Most Minnesotans who lack health insurance need to select and buy a plan by midnight that night or face the health care law's penalty of as much as 1 percent of household income.

In addition, consumers who miss the deadline will have to wait until mid-November to enroll again in coverage unless they qualify for Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare or experience a so-called life event, such as a marriage, divorce, loss of a job or the birth of a child.

To ensure that consumers can enroll, MNsure's call center will be open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays through the end of open enrollment.

The center's regular hours are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4:30 pm Saturdays.