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Covered California: Older Jump In First, But Officials Buoyed By Number Of Young Enrollees

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Anna Gorman

Thu, Nov 21 2013

By Sarah Varney

SACRAMENTO -- In a state considered crucial to the success of Obamacare, older people have enrolled in California’s new health insurance marketplace in large numbers as expected, but younger people also have showed up in force.

About 56 percent of Californians who signed up for coverage in October are over 45 and nearly 23 percent of the enrollees are between 18 and 34 years old, according to data released Thursday at the Covered California board meeting in Sacramento. The older enrollees make up a higher percentage than in the state’s total population, while the proportion of younger consumers more or less matches their makeup statewide.

Policymakers and health officials around the nation are closely watching California, which has nearly 7 million uninsured and the highest number of people enrolled in new coverage of any state. In the first month of the law, California consumers made up about one-third of enrollees nationwide. As of Nov. 19, nearly 80,000 people had signed up. California runs its own health insurance exchange and website and is not part of the troubled federal site. 

Executive Director Peter Lee said he was pleased that young people were already enrolling because that bodes well for premiums in 2015. “Our sustainability in the long term is about having a good risk mix,” he said.

Perhaps even more important than age, however, will be how healthy or unhealthy the enrollees are. Those who are sick are more motivated to sign up early because they may have imminent health needs and may have been locked out of the insurance market, researchers said. They are willing to put up with application problems, online and in person, months before they will see any actual benefit. 

“There is a whole group of people who would like to get into health insurance who have been held at bay,” said Deborah Chollet, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research. “It has been an unfriendly market.” 

The nation’s health law does not allow insurers to reject people with preexisting conditions. The health status of the enrollees won’t become clear until insurance companies start seeing claims next year. 

Jesse Crall, 23, has been uninsured since he graduated from UCLA last year. Though he is otherwise healthy, Crall has depression and attention deficit disorder. Each month, he pays $760 for therapy and $300 for medication. 

He went online to sign up immediately, though he had to send additional paperwork before his application could be processed. “I want this to go into effect as soon as possible,” said Crall, who lives in Hollywood. “I need a plan that cuts these costs.”

Meeting The Latino Need

The data released Thursday highlighted one steep challenge for California officials: It showed a poor turnout among Spanish-speaking consumers. Just 3 percent of those signed up in October spoke primarily Spanish, compared to about 29 percent in the state's population. That is expected to increase over time, Lee said, because more than half of the enrollment counselors speak Spanish. 

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