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Can Young People Get Obamacare For $50 A Month? Sometimes


For Obamacare to succeed, it's crucial for young people to sign up.

Healthy young Americans need to pay into the insurance system to help cover the costs for older, sicker people.

So the White House is reaching out. Its website sent emails to subscribers with a big, orange graphic that says half of young people can get coverage for $50 a month or less.

And there's a link to an online video featuring David Simas, an assistant to the president, who touts that statistic again. "Nearly 50 percent of young, single adults will be eligible for a plan at $50 a month or less," he says. "That's an amazing rate."

But is that accurate? The short answer is no — at least not according to the administration's own analysis. The report done by the Department of Health and Human Services actually says it's only 32 percent of single, uninsured young adults who can get health coverage that cheap. The rest will have to pay more.

Now to be fair, the administration mentions on its blog, emails and press releases that this $50-or-less number refers to people who are "eligible for the health insurance marketplace." But it doesn't explain that that qualifier eliminates more than half of uninsured young Americans. For that you have to read the actual report.

If you do, you'll see that most young Americans actually don't make enough money to qualify for the public exchanges.

People like that were supposed to be covered by Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act compelled states to expand their Medicaid coverage and be reimbursed by the federal government for the extra cost. But the Supreme Court struck down that part of the law, and states got the right to opt out.

By the latest count, 25 states — 22 of them with Republican governors — are so far not expanding Medicaid. So many young people in those states fall through the cracks.

OK, so back to that $50 health care claim, which should probably have a big asterisk next to it.

"It's really just trying to get young people to check out their options," says Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who was a consultant to President Obama on the development of the Affordable Care Act. Gruber says he doesn't know if all the White House statements are accurate.

The president himself is encouraging young people to check out just how affordable health coverage can be. He spoke to supporters at a hotel in Washington this month. "Most of the young people in this country who don't have health insurance currently are going to be able to get it for less than their cellphone bill, less than their cable bill," he said.

But the actual numbers in the administration's own study show that, without some qualifiers and asterisks, it's still a bit of a stretch. According to the HHS study, 40 percent of young people under 35 can get coverage for $100 a month or less.

Some of these sound bites may seem a bit oversimplified or overstated. "The goal of a statement like that is to really just say to young people: Hey, there's good low-cost options out there," Gruber says. "And for many of you it could be $50 a month. For some it could be a bit more, but it will be surprisingly cheap once you look at it. And the important point is for people to get on the website and shop."

So in other words, it's like any other marketing campaign. All the pitches aren't exactly, entirely true, but they do get your attention.

And at least some people have been able to get on the Obamacare websites and shop around like the administration wants them to. Brighid Greene, a 24-year-old dancer who lives in the New York City borough of Queens, is one.

"I'm excited that it worked," she says. "I think that's huge that I was able to go on and, like, figure it out and make sense of it."

Greene makes $27,000 a year. She went online to find out what kind of coverage she could get, and from the best she could figure, with the tax credits she'd qualify for, it would be $159 a month.

Greene says that's less than half of what she can get without Obamacare for a similar plan. So she's going to sign up.

The Obama administration stands behind its promotion campaign and points to a finding in that federal study: It says that if all the states in the study expanded their Medicaid coverage the way they were supposed to when the law passed, almost 90 percent of single Americans under 35 years old could get coverage for less than $100 a month.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.