March 31 deadline looms to sign up for health coverage

Click on the TV and you’re likely to see two actors rapping. One is dressed in a green satin jacket, the other in a white outfit that might politely be called eclectic.

It may take more than one viewing to get the full message. They aren’t just two guys chatting with a couple several decades beyond the typical rapper demographic. The couple’s story involves being denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

Ah. That health insurance lingo. But somehow those words sound a little less off-putting when sung to the lilting rhythm heard in the ad: PRE-exist-ING Con-DIT-ion.

It’s part of a federally funded $2.6 million advertising blitz in Washington during the six weeks before March 31, the deadline for people who don’t have insurance to sign up for it. Those who don’t sign up face the possibility of a fine.

Then there’s the president. He took the unexpected step of appearing on an online comedy show, “Between Two Ferns,” to push health care signup. In the process, he took more than a few verbal jabs from the host, Zach Galifianakis. Political opponents called the appearance silly and inappropriate.

A White House spokeswoman responded that it helped send people to a federal website for health insurance enrollment.

The federal Affordable Care Act continues to be a polarizing topic nearly two years after the law was challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court and found to be constitutional.

This month’s approaching deadline at least temporarily has shifted some of the debate from politics to a “do-I-or-don’t-I?” decision.

And one of the main targets for the sign-up push are 26- to 37-year-olds. They’re sometimes called “the young invincibles” — young, healthy people who think they don’t need insurance.

The split between those who do and those who don’t sign up sometimes occurs within the same family. Jennifer Delia, a 29-year-old Edmonds Community College student, and Jason Kylmala, her 27-year-old brother who lives in King County, are an example.

Delia said she couldn’t afford health care before the Affordable Care Act. Medications for her asthma and allergy problems could hit $500 a month without prescription benefits, she said.

So when she got the opportunity to sign up, she did, with coverage that began Jan. 1. “It only took 20 minutes to go through the questions,” she said.

Kylmala, who is planning to return to college soon, summed up his feelings on health insurance this way: “I don’t feel like I absolutely have to have it.

“I don’t really get too sick — maybe one cold a year,” he said. “I figure if I never really go (to the doctor) the odds of me needing ‘Obamacare’ are very slim. I haven’t really pushed myself to go and complete it when I don’t need it at the moment.”

He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of signing up. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

The rocky online rollout of Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act has been called, is one reason some say they’re reluctant to sign up. “It started off with a bad perception,” Delia said.

It also seems like one more “must-do” for whom she calls “just regular students.”

Delia said she’s most concerned about young adults who feel that illness or accidents won’t happen to them. “It’s almost like when people don’t have access to something, they want it,” she said. “Now that they do, it seems like they don’t want it.”

There is help paying for health care. Someone making up to $15,856, or a family of four making up to $32,499, may qualify for Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid plan.

A single adult can earn up to $45,960 and get a subsidy for private health-care insurance. A family of four can make up to $94,200 and qualify for financial help.

“They say you can afford it based on income,” but some young adults may worry that they can’t, she said. “It’s really tough to juggle school and work and pay for these things.”

Some of the groups involved in health care signups say they’re concerned that despite the publicity blitz, the message still hasn’t sunk in for people without insurance: They’re facing a March 31 deadline.

The state Insurance Commissioner’s Office hasn’t gotten many phone calls about the upcoming deadline. “That doesn’t mean people won’t be surprised by it,” said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the state agency. “I think when the deadline is passed, then we may hear from people, which is unfortunate.”

In the past, if consumers wanted to buy individual health insurance, they could buy it any time of the year. But most people would have to pass a health screening questionnaire, she said. “Now there are no more health screenings, but there is an enrollment period.”

Another misconception is that people can simply wait until they’re sick or hurt to sign up for health insurance. “If you’re enrolling in a private health plan, they won’t retroactively cover your emergency medical needs,” said Bethany Frey, a spokeswoman for the Washington Health Benefits Exchange, which runs the state’s online health insurance shopping site.

“That’s really a gamble,” she said. “We hear stories from people across the state, even young, healthy people, and suddenly they were wishing they had health-care coverage.”

All it took was one such experience for Henry Yarsinske Jr., a 27-year-old student at Everett Community College and managing editor of The Clipper, the student news publication.

“I saw a doctor at a walk-in clinic and it was $250,” he said. “For me, that’s an entire paycheck from The Clipper.” He signed up for health insurance three days later.

Yarsinske said he was surprised by how easy it was to sign up. “I was expecting to pay,” he said. But his income qualified him for the state’s Medicaid plan, Apple Health. “To call and have a regular doctor now is a really good feeling,” Yarsinske said.

In spite of the online, radio and television advertising blitz to get health insurance on the radar of young adults, it’s not something Yarsinske and his friends talk much about.

Many of his friends have health insurance through their jobs, he said. Signing up for health plans “is something you do privately, like your tax return,” Yarsinske said. “At least with my friends, health care doesn’t really get brought up.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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