Students Are in Cross Hairs of Dueling Messages on New Health Care Options

October 10, 2013 | Chronicle of Higher Education |  Link to article

By Justin Doubleday October 10, 2013

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With the participation of young adults in the new health-insurance markets seen as key to the success of the Affordable Care Act, college students can expect to hear dueling messages in the coming weeks over how the health-care law will affect them.

The opening of the marketplaces this month gives students a new range of affordable options for health insurance, said Christina Postolowski, a senior policy analyst at Young Invincibles, a progressive advocacy group that is encouraging young adults to take advantage of the law sometimes known as Obamacare.

Young Invincibles will act as a marketplace "navigator" in some states, meaning that representatives of the group are trained to provide free assistance to anybody who wants to purchase health care through an exchange.

"Health insurance is key to financial security," said Ms. Postolowski. Young Invincibles, whose name comes from the health-care industry's term for uninsured people ages 18 to 29, plans to hold information sessions on college campuses around the country, including this month at Rice University, Texas A&M University at College Station, and the University of Houston.

But it is not the only group heading to campuses to inform students of their options for health care.Generation Opportunity, made up of "free-thinking, liberty-loving" members of the millennial generation, is urging young people to avoid the government's marketplaces. It lets them know, for instance, that the annual fine for failing to purchase insurance in 2014 is either $95 or 1 percent of an individual's annual income, whichever is greater.

And if young people want insurance, there are cheaper alternatives outside of the exchanges, said Evan Feinberg, president of Generation Opportunity. "Opting into Obamacare is a terrible idea for young people."

The centerpiece of the group's Opt-Out campaign is a pair of controversial videos featuring a "Creepy Uncle Sam." The videos, which together have drawn more than three million viewings on YouTube, show a nefarious-looking Uncle Sam popping up during a young woman's and young man's medical examinations. The video fades out to the words: "Don't let government play doctor. Opt Out of Obamacare."

Some have criticized the advertisements for sensationalizing the government's role under the new law; Mr. Feinberg describes them as satire. His group argues that the marketplace poses significant privacy concerns related to the security of the central data hub through which consumer information will be routed. Generation Opportunity plans to bring its message to 20 college campuses across the country in the coming weeks, providing activities like the lawn game cornhole and even serving beer.

If the Opt-Out campaign and others like it succeed, the Affordable Care Act may be hobbled. Like traditional health insurance, it depends on signing up many young, healthy people to balance out the cost for older people, who tend to have more need of health care.

Community-College Focus

Groups promoting the new health-care law are focusing on community colleges, which, unlike many four-year universities, often don't offer students health insurance, and where a larger share of students may be uninsured.

Nearly 70 percent of students who do not graduate from college say that if a college provided health insurance for all students, even those enrolled part time, that would significantly help people like them earn a degree, according to a report by the nonprofit group Public Agenda.

Many students who don't have health insurance would probably qualify for marketplace subsidies or the expansion of Medicaid, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or Clasp, an advocacy group for low-income people. In 2011 the group started the program Benefits Access for College Completion to help connect students with public benefits. Seven community and technical colleges are now testing the program.

This past spring, Clasp and Young Invincibles released a guide that outlines how community colleges can inform and enroll their students in the new health-care programs. "These colleges have a leg up because they have already been trying to connect students to public benefits," said Ms. Duke-Benfield.

Single Stop USA, another organization that connects low-income individuals with public benefits, also serves community-college students. It recently became a marketplace navigator in New York and plans to help students there get access to the new health-care options.

"Being unhealthy really impacts retention, impacts the ability to do well in school," said Andrew Stettner, chief program officer for Single Stop USA. "It's really important for community colleges to give students information about these programs."

The Lone Star College system, in Texas, serves approximately 90,000 students in the Houston area. While the system does not sponsor any insurance plans for the overall enrollment, its advisers try to steer students to local health resources, said Juanita Chrysanthou, vice chancellor for student success. Some students are still on their parents' health insurance, she said, while others look to their college for health-care resources.

"We have a responsibility to inform students of what we know and what we think they should know," Ms. Chrysanthou said. Advisers are starting to give out information on the health-insurance exchanges, she said.

Other colleges, meanwhile, are wary of providing information before it's clear what will happen with the financing for the Affordable Care Act, an issue at the crux of the federal-government shutdown. Officials at the Maricopa County Community College District, in Arizona, are preparing to inform students of the new health-care options-just not yet.

"For us, it's not a rush," said Felicia L. Ganther, associate vice chancellor for student affairs. Officials don't want to hand out information when changes may come, she said. "That's not helpful to students."Many students who don't have health insurance would probably qualify for marketplace subsidies or the expansion of Medicaid, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or Clasp, an advocacy group for low-income people. In 2011 the group started the program Benefits Access for College Completion to help connect students with public benefits.

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