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The Obama administration announced today that health insurance sign-ups under the Affordable Care Act have topped three million. And so the push has begun to encourage those under 35 to get covered. All along, the theory has been that without young and health people in the insurance pools, premiums will spiral upwards in future years. But now, it looks like that may not in fact be the case. NPR's Julie Rovner explains.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Now that the problems with the HealthCare.gov website have been largely fixed, the Obama administration finally feels confident enough to roll out its long-planned outreach campaign to lure the young and uninsured. Among their celebrity spokespeople is former L.A. Laker, Magic Johnson, who released a video last week.
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MAGIC JOHNSON: Young people, they think they're Superman, like nothing ever going to happen to them. But trust me, one day, something is going to happen and you're going to need a quality health plan.
ROVNER: Among other things, the administration plans to air ads during the upcoming Winter Olympics and March Madness college basketball tournaments. But increasingly, experts like Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation have been wondering just how critical young people really are to making the health exchanges operate smoothly.
LARRY LEVITT: There's been this incredible focus on reaching young invincibles and getting them to sign up for insurance. But it turns out that the invincible part is actually much more important than the young part.
ROVNER: That's because under the health law, insurers can no longer deny people coverage or charge them more because of their health status. So it makes getting healthy people the targets regardless of age. Levitt says...
LEVITT: An insurer would much rather have a healthy 60-year-old who goes to the gym every day than a sick 25-year-old.
ROVNER: Insurance industry consultant Robert Laszewski agrees that it's not the young who insurers want most.
ROBERT LASZEWSKI: We need healthy people. We need healthy 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds.
ROVNER: Laszewski says there's another reason insurance companies might want the older healthy person rather than the younger one. The older person is more profitable.
LASZEWSKI: It's not uncommon for a 20-year-old to only be paying $100 a month or a $120 a month. So getting lots of young people doesn't necessarily get us lots of premium.
ROVNER: That's because while the law doesn't let insurers charge sick people more, it does let them charge older people more, up to three times more. Laszewski says what worries him right now isn't a particularly small percentage of young people, but how few people of any age have signed up for insurance so far through the exchanges.
LASZEWSKI: We've always felt that you need 70 percent of a group to be able to get a good cross-section of healthy and sick to make the program sustainable. And the administration's only at about 10 percent. This is troubling.
ROVNER: And what if the mix, healthy versus sick, or young versus old, doesn't come out quite right? Well, the law is actually designed to take that into account, says Larry Levitt.
LEVITT: There are a number of shock absorbers built into the system that mean, particularly in the first couple of years, the insurance system can withstand a skewed mix of enrollees.
ROVNER: Those shock absorbers include several different kinds of additional payments that can go to health plans that end up enrolling sicker-than-anticipated populations. But those payments don't go on indefinitely, notes insurance consultant Laszewski.
LASZEWSKI: That's only going to help for a very limited period of time. It's training wheels, if you will, to get this thing launched.
ROVNER: He says the real key to making the exchanges self-sustaining is to build the numbers overall.
LASZEWSKI: I think the focus is wrong in that they're reaching out only to young people. They need to be reaching out to everyone.
ROVNER: The administration has two more months to get those numbers up. Open enrollment ends March 31st. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.