As the end of open enrollment for health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act draws near, University students are reaching out to ensure that the public is educated about their options under the new law.

The Washtenaw Health Initiative has recruited nearly 70 University students who are now working around the county to educate low-income individuals about the ACA. Their mission: encourage the uninsured to come to hospitals, like University of Michigan Health System, where employees are on call to help people enroll.

HealthCare.gov — the national public exchange program for health insurance providers — has an ongoing open enrollment period, allowing new customers to register for health insurance from last October until March 31 of this year.

While approximately 75,000 Michiganders have signed up for coverage under the new laws, there are thousands more who desperately need health insurance, and do not know how ACA works and what kind of benefits they can recieve.

WHI project manager Carrie Rheingans said students are looking to educate those who believe they cannot afford health insurance under the new act.

“The biggest hurdle that people have is that they still think it’s going to be expensive,” Rheingans said. “Historically, insurance has been expensive, that’s why people didn’t get it. But they don’t know about all of the tax credits and other assistance that is available until they go on there and enter their own personal information.”

While misconceptions about expense are one reason why many low-income Americans have not have signed up for healthcare, others choose not to due to misgivings about HealthCare.gov. When the site first went live in October, glitches in the system lead to difficulty in login and long wait-times afterward.

Rackham student Juliana Stebbins, who is involved in ACA outreach, said although the site is now running smoothly, the initial rollout scared people away.

“At first people were not proactive about going out and getting insurance because it was intimidating or they just didn’t really understand it,” Stebbins said. “Now it’s because it’s broken and it’s confusing. You’re hearing all this negative publicity about it, and it just deters the process even longer.”

Students have also been trying to educate the community about Michigan’s new Medicaid expansion — known as the Healthy Michigan plan.

Michigan is one of 25 states to expand Medicaid. Unlike other states, Michigan has delayed the process until April of this year. At that time, Medicaid will become available for most people age 19 to 64 who make less than $15,000 a year. Stebbins said a big challenge on Healthy Michigan education was getting past the stigma that Medicaid is only for the sick.

“When people think of Medicaid they don’t really associate themselves with it because it used to be really limited to a certain demographic and a certain population – disabled, blinds, children,” Stebbins said. “Being a working adult, people just don’t assume that they fall into that category, but now they do.”

Stebbins added that Medicaid would be the ideal plan for students older than age 26, who legally can no longer be insured under their parents’ plan. It will be cheaper than University plans, and student loans are not counted against you when calculating an insurance premium, Stebbins added.

A Jan. 13 New York Times article reported only 24 percent of people ages 18 to 34 are choosing an ACA healthcare plan. Since insurance plans rely on healthy individuals to contribute to keep premiums down, costs are likely to increase if younger demographics don’t enroll in greater numbers. Rheingans attributed the low percentage of young enrollees to the tendency of young people to wait until the last minute.

“Young people are notorious for doing things at the last minute,” Rheingans said. “Now that people are hearing that the website is working, people are saying ‘Okay I’ll go on, but I don’t have to go on until March 31.’ So you know young people aren’t going to go on until the end of February or March.”

Even so, some young people may not want health insurance through the ACA, or at all for that matter. A December Gallup Poll reported that said a majority of people aged 18 to 29 disapprove of the ACA, and fewer than a third of the uninsured members of this age group would sign up for insurance through the act.

The Public Interest Research Group in Michigan has created a health insurance guidebook for young people, and is working with the University, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College to get information out to students.

Stebbins said before open enrollment ends, her organization plans to set up tables around campus where students can come and talk about insurance. Whatever method is used, Stebbins said “the young invincibles” — people who think they don’t need insurance — are an issue that needs to be addressed.

This year, individuals will pay $95 per adult or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater, for remaining uninsured, according to the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services. These fines increase to $325 or 2 percent of income in 2015 and $695 or 2.5 percent of income in 2016.

“I think that when people get stuck with a fine, the tax penalty, that may change their attitude,” Stebbins said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get young people enrolled in health insurance, but it’s a really big problem if they don’t.”

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