A unique campaign spearheaded by Yale School of Medicine students to encourage uninsured young adults to sign up for health coverage by the federal March 31 deadline has galvanized student groups across Connecticut and the country.
The Students for a Better Healthcare System (SBHS) campaign has reached more than 600 residents of all ages and health care providers through dozens of presentations at schools, churches, physician practices, medical clinics and other greater New Haven sites. The University of Connecticut School of Medicine has joined the effort to reach Hartford area residents and 33 schools nationwide have expressed interest in bringing the campaign to their local communities.
“The most important thing we can do right now is help people sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act,” said Matthew Meizlish, a SBHS co-founder who just completed his term as co-president of Yale’s chapter of the American Medical Student Association. “Our goal is to expand access to health care and to engage our communities in building a better health care system.”
Consumers have until March 31 to sign up for coverage to avoid a tax penalty. After that, people can buy health insurance only if they experience a life-changing event, such as marriage, divorce or the birth of a child. Otherwise, they must wait until Nov. 15, 2014 when the next enrollment period begins. Individuals can apply for Medicaid, the government-funded health insurance program for the poor, at any time.
Enrolling young adults ages 18 to 34 is crucial for health care reform to succeed. Insurance companies need a mix of healthy and sick people of all ages to balance the costs for everyone. People under age 35 have been coined the “young invicibles” because they tend to be healthy and sometimes don’t think they need insurance.
In Connecticut, an estimated 9.5 percent of the population lacks coverage, according to Access Health CT, the insurance marketplace created by the federal health law.
“If we’re going to be successful in getting the overall uninsured rate down, then we must focus on getting young people to come into the fold as well,” said Jason Madrak, chief marketing officer for Access Health. As of March 3, a total of 151,900 people had signed up for private insurance (58,207) and Medicaid (93,783) at Access Health. People ages 18 to 34 accounted for 22 percent of those who bought private insurance.
The idea for SBHS emerged last year following conversations among medical students “about the health care debate leading up to passage of the Affordable Care Act and how disconnected it was with reality,” said Meizlish. “It’s really easy for misinformation to win when people don’t have an understanding of the health care system.” Yale’s chapter of the American Medical Student Association started the campaign, but any student group at any school can join.
“Health reform has become such a politicized issue that people are afraid to talk about it,” said Kyle Ragins, a MD/MBA student at Yale and Connecticut state director for Doctors for America and Enroll America. “It seems unfair not to tell people about this opportunity so they can make the decision themselves about whether they want to be insured or not.”
The SBHS campaign has brought together medical, nursing, law and undergraduate students at Yale. Meizlish believes the students are “viewed has trusted and accessible communicators” who can bridge the gap between the lay and medical communities.
According to Madrak, Access Health began courting young adults last year at summer concerts. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been instrumental, too. “About 30,000 people follow us on Facebook,” he said. “Young people who follow us tend to re-post the information which allows us to reach even more individuals.” But what makes the SBHS campaign unique and potentially effective is that “young health professionals are organizing to engage young people in the process,” added Madrak.
Still, persuading young adults to purchase health insurance remains challenging.
“Young people who aren’t sick feel they are never going to get sick,” said Ragins. But an illness can hit any time at any age, leaving people medically and financially vulnerable. “Medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States,” he said.
For many young people, cost is the biggest obstacle.
“Most young individuals know what health insurance is and how it would benefit them,” said Madrak. “But it comes down to finances. Our biggest challenge is making them aware of the tax credits and subsidies that can make health insurance truly affordable.” For example, individuals with annual incomes of up to $45,000 who purchase insurance at Access Health are eligible for tax credits to offset the cost of health plans.
With the enrollment deadline approaching, SBHS plans to step up its efforts in the coming weeks and is already planning a national launch in time for next fall’s enrollment period. Last week, Meizlish and others conducted training sessions for student groups at the national convention of the American Medical Student Association in New Orleans.
“We’re very optimistic about the potential for schools in other states to bring this campaign to their communities,” he said. “Our goal is to build a national movement of young leaders who can shape the future direction of our health care system.”