Obamas rally moms to boost Obamacare. Will that work?

Barack and Michelle Obamas want moms to convince their kids to sign up for Obamacare. That's because 'young invincibles' aren't yet getting into health care at the rates needed to make the system work.

Charles Dharapak/AP
First lady Michelle Obama, seen here at a White House event earlier this month, will try to rally moms to the Obamacare cause.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are targeting a particular group of powerful Americans in their effort to boost enrollment in the Affordable Care Act: moms.

That’s right, moms. The White House figures no one is better able to cajole the so-called “young invincibles” into getting health care than their mothers, who have cared for them so long, and cleaned up after them, and packed them lunches, and did they ask for any thanks? Your happiness is thanks enough, that’s what they said.

Sorry, we got carried away for a second. So the Obamas are meeting today in the Oval Office with a group of mothers. Several of their visitors are heading outreach efforts designed to let friends, neighbors, and kids take advantage of their new health insurance options, according to the White House.

“Moms have a unique role to play in helping young adults gain health-care coverage,” says a White House official, speaking on background.

Young adults are important to the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”, because they’re relatively healthy. Insurers need their premiums to balance out the costs of older Americans, who generally consume more health services.

If fewer young people than expected enroll, then premiums might rise in following years to cover the revenue shortfall. Then, even fewer young people might sign up, due to increased costs, and then the costs might have to rise again, and so on, creating a “death spiral” for the law, according to critics. (The law does contain some financial stabilizers meant to fend this off.)

The White House is right to be concerned about young peoples’ reaction to the law so far. Evidence from some state exchanges shows they are not signing up in anticipated numbers. Perhaps worse, they are less likely to even know about the law and their ACA options than are older possible customers.

A recent Gallup poll found that only 63 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds are very or somewhat aware of the ACA, as opposed to 72 percent overall.

“This is very significant because younger Americans are the target of the Affordable Care Act, at least in terms of the necessity that they sign up for insurance to make the whole thing work,” said Frank Newport, Gallup editor-in-chief, in a commentary on the survey.

That’s the shortfall moms are supposed to address, apparently – the information deficit. Many of them are good at that, aren’t they? They bug you and bug you to wear your coat out in the cold, and that works, doesn’t it? Except all those other kids showed up for school in a hoodie and shorts and laugh at you. We’re not bitter at all.

Anyway, America’s moms may be a good group to rally to the ACA’s defense, if they can be rallied. The Heritage Foundation is urging mothers to go the other way, and tell their kids to not sign up, due to potential rate shock from higher premiums under Obamacare, and the possibility of higher taxes to pay for the law’s subsidies in the future.

But it’s possible that the need to sign up young people has been exaggerated. That’s what a group of scholars from the Kaiser Family Foundation is arguing, in any case. 

They’ve run the numbers, and they figure that the pool of potential enrollees for Obamacare is about 40 percent young adults. If, say, the pool of actual enrollees is only about 33 percent young adults, then projected costs for insurers will rise by a (non-)whopping 1.1 percent to keep revenues in line, according to their calculations.

That's because "premiums are still allowed to vary substantially based on age," they say.

If young people represent only 25 percent of enrollees, projected costs for insurers would rise 2.4 percent, according to the KFF study.

“Premiums are not as sensitive to the mix of enrollment as fears about a ‘death spiral’ suggest, particularly with respect to age,” write the authors of the study, Larry Levitt, Gary Claxton, and Anthony Damico.

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