It Doesn't Matter If Most Millennials Are Skeptical of Obamacare

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Harvard Institute of Politics survey released Wednesday has garnered a lot of attention for its findings about Millennials' views of Obamacare, in addition to their opinions on President Obama himself.

Between 56 and 57 percent of the 18- to-29-year-old respondents didn't approve of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare (depending on how the question was asked); 40 to 44 percent thought their quality of care would get worse under the new law; and 50 to 51 percent said they expected costs to increase.

This has led to a giant round of Oh my God, Obamacare is going to be a giant failure because young people hate it, won't enroll, and the insurance plans will go into death spirals. Well, no.

Ryan Cooper argues this morning that Millennials "will come around on Obamacare." But do they even need to? More than half the Millennials in the IOP study said they'd at least consider to signing up for Obamacare exchange insurance if and when they are old enough to need it.

According to the survey, 22 percent said they'd definitely or probably enroll in Obamacare, and another 29 percent said they were 50-50 on whether they'd enroll or not. Only 45 percent said they definitely would not enroll.

The whole survey sample was asked those questions, according to topline data provided by the pollsters. Sounds dismal—until you see that only 22 percent of those surveyed individuals were uninsured!

Another way of looking at the data: 22 percent of people in a sample that was 22 percent uninsured said they would definitely or probably sign up for Obamacare. And 29 percent of people in a sample that was 35 percent covered by their parents' insurance said they were 50-50 on enrolling if and when eligible.

That paints a very different picture than just focusing on the large percentage who think their costs will go up while their quality of care goes down. Obamacare's long-term health depends on whether people who are already insured support the program, but their opinion matters much less in the short term.

Drilling down further, the survey asked the 22 percent uninsured if they would sign up for insurance, and found only 25 to 29 percent of them definitely or probably planning to. Yet there are so many uninsured young people that health officials do not need all of them to sign up immediately to get the Obamacare exchanges working. They don't even need to get a third of them.

The goal for 2013-2014 open enrollment in the exchanges was 7 million people across all age groups, out of a total uninsured population of about 48 million. Put another way, Obamacare's first-year enrollment goal through the exchanges is only about 15 percent of the uninsured. More important than the absolute number enrolled is the mix of ages. For the new risk pools to work, 38 percent of enrollees need to be younger than 35. Even if as few as 4 million people enroll by March 31, the program will work if the age mix is right in each state.

Sticking with the 7 million figure, the question is: Are there 2.7 million uninsured people younger than 35 in the United States who would like to be insured this coming year?

No matter what the IOP study suggests about general views, there is nothing in it to support a finding that this enrollment goal is going to be impossible based on people's views of Obamacare—rather than, say, management problems with the program.

As I reported in July, there are 19 million uninsured Americans between 18 and 34, 9 million of whom are likely to be eligible for federal insurance subsidies. That means there are more than three times as many uninsured young people eligible for subsidies as the program needs to enroll under its best-case scenario to work—and more than seven times as many young uninsured overall.

Whether those people sign up for insurance now that the website is largely functional will depend on many things. But the concerns outlined in the Harvard study probably won't be the determinative factor.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.


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