By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Baby boomers are signing up for Colorado’s health exchange at much higher numbers than the so-called “young invincibles” who are critical to the success of health reform.
Colorado’s health exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, this week released basic demographic data for the first time since the exchange opened on Oct. 1.
Of the 9,980 people who signed up for health insurance in the first two months, 6 percent are ages 18 to 25. Another 11 percent are 26 to 34 years old. Most health analysts define “young invincibles” as people younger than 30. But even including young people through age 34, only 17 percent of sign-ups so far are coming from people ages 18 to 34. Meanwhile, older adults ages 55 to 64 accounted for 43 percent of people who bought plans in October and November.
Exchange spokeswoman Myung Oak Kim said Connect for Health is pleased with the diversity of ages among those who have signed up so far and anticipates young people will need some prodding.
“We expect that many young adults will wait until the last minute to sign up and will need encouragement to recognize the importance of having and paying for health insurance,” Kim said in a written statement.
Exchange Board Chair Gretchen Hammer said the early metrics don’t mean much.
“I don’t think the data at this point in time is safe to interpret,” said Hammer, who is also executive director for the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.
She said it’s far too early to make assumptions when only 9,980 people have signed up in Colorado. Altogether, exchange managers set a mid-level goal of enrolling about 135,000 people by the end of March. And counting all the people who are uninsured or buy private insurance through the individual market or through a small business, the exchange could tap as many as 1.9 million potential customers in Colorado, Hammer said. Furthermore, Hammer pointed out that there are fewer young people in Colorado ages 19 to 34 — about 1 million — than those who are 35 to 64 and number about 2.1 million.
The overall pace of sign-ups for private health insurance increased somewhat in the second half of November to 3,979 for the last two weeks compared with 2,593 during the first weeks, according to the new data. Still, with a total of 9,980 people signed up so far, the exchange is well below its lowest projections, which called for about 15,000 people signing up in October and November. At the same time, sign-ups for the public Medicaid program continue to far outnumber private sign-ups with 64,290 new Medicaid enrollees in October and November.
Hammer said the numbers for private sign-ups are moving in the right direction and exchange managers anticipate a burst of activity this month. Customers wanting coverage to start on Jan. 1 have until Dec. 23 to buy insurance after the federal government extended the deadline from Dec. 15 to buy on both federal and state exchanges. To buy coverage for next year, customers must sign up by the end of March. Those who don’t will face penalties.
Board member and small business owner, Ellen Daehnick, is concerned that low enrollment numbers could threaten the financial viability of the exchange in the long run.
“All of the financial projections for the exchange being able to pay its bills after the federal grants run out depend on meeting those projections,” Daehnick said. “If we underachieve, what does that mean for 2015? It could snowball and that’s relevant for the financial health and sustainability of the exchange.”
Kim, the exchange spokeswoman, said that Connect for Health’s “financial status is not impacted because of our funding structure through 2014 and we are focused on meeting our long-term sustainability goals.”
The exchange conducted an outreach effort on Sunday with Denver area churches and an advocacy group called Boomers Leading Change in Health. Kim said Connect for Health is also planning a holiday “Connect to Coverage Statewide Tour.”
Board member Eric Grossman, who is a health IT expert, is also concerned about the financial viability of the exchange. That’s why he pressed managers to have a singular focus on sales when he spoke at last week’s exchange meeting.
“We’re in the red zone. If you look at the metrics and just do some basic math, we’ve got to get 12,000 enrollees a week.”
Grossman said those goals are not insurmountable, but exchange board members must focus intently on boosting sales.
“It’s the fourth quarter. There’s one minute left. How are we gong to get there?” he said.
Exchange board member Ellen Daehnick thinks the problem is more urgent.
“Overall these numbers are way too low and it’s crunch time. Wait and see won’t work. We have a problem that could pretty quickly become a significant problem. Connect needs to get out ahead of that. What actions are we taking to drive sales?
“We need an immediate plan,” she said. “We don’t have very much time….We’ve got 10,000 sign-ups (so far) and a goal of 135,000. That math doesn’t work.”