Millennials may be scouring Pinterest for the right do-it-yourself present or cruising the mall for last-minute Christmas gifts, but there's something else on Hilda Nieblas' to-do list this season: figure out this health insurance business.
The 24-year-old graduate student plans to use her winter break free time to find out what kind of insurance she could get under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. She doesn't have health insurance, but Nieblas said she was so busy working as Cal State Bakersfield's student government president and taking classes for her master's in public administration this fall that she didn't keep up with what the law means for her.
"I haven't really taken the time to go in to depth and (research) it by myself, which I will eventually do," Nieblas said, adding that for her and many of her peers, this is their first introduction to health insurance.
Ready or not, Nieblas and her companions are key players in the success of the Affordable Care Act. Often called "young invincibles," the buy-in of the 18- to 34-year-old age group is pivotal because insurance companies need them to sign up for health care coverage to balance out older, sicker customers.
But pitching insurance to a healthy demographic that doesn't go to the doctor often is a tough sell. And with only three months left until young adults must have insurance or pay a penalty, local insurance agents and community advocates said many young invincibles are still befuddled by the law.
"Are they confused? Yes. Do they really know what to do? No. They really need the help of the agent to help them figure it out is my experience," said Robin Carpenter, vice president of employee benefits at Tolman & Wiker Insurance Services.
MILLIONS OF MILLENNIALS COULD BENEFIT
More than a quarter of 18- to 34-year-old Californians don't have insurance, according to the aptly named advocacy group Young Invincibles.
The national advocacy group for young adults, which also has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, estimates that up to 1.03 million young Californians could qualify for Medi-Cal and up to 1.29 million could qualify for tax credits to help them buy a plan on Covered California, the state's health benefits exchange.
But statewide, only 23,825 people ages 18 to 34 signed up for plans on the exchange in October and November. That makes up for 21 percent of the exchange's total enrollment for that time frame, while that demographic accounts for about 25 precent of the state's population, according to Covered California.
It's hard to say how many young adults could benefit from the law in Kern County, but from October through November, a total of 1,146 Kern residents -- not just the younger ones -- signed up for a plan through the exchange and another 1,474 had submitted applications for expanded Medi-Cal coverage.
The exchange's first open enrollment period runs from October through the end of March. With some exceptions, most people will pay a penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their annual household income -- whichever is more -- if they don't have insurance by the close of open enrollment.
While community advocates who are gearing up to target more young adults when they return to school in January, several young adults said they are still somewhat in the dark about what is going on.
"At this point I haven't seen anything in the news. I haven't seen anything on campus that would remind people" about Obamacare, said Shelby Sward, 20, who is the legislative liaison for Bakersfield College's Student Government Association.
Like many young adults, Sward is covered by her parents' insurance. Most of what she hears about the Affordable Care Act from her peers are complaints about the law and confusion about problems with the federal website, which is different than Covered California's site.
"I don't think any of my friends even know about it," she said, adding that many of them are probably banking on staying on their parents' plans until they are 26.
Insurance agents and local enrollment workers said young adults may not just be uneducated about the law, they also might not realize the value of health insurance at this stage of life.
Carpenter said young adults may decide to opt out of getting insurance if they have never seen medical bills pile up first-hand.
"(If) they see their parents talking about the bills that have come in and the cost of health care, particularly the cost of hospitalization, that really awakens them to what it really means to not have insurance," she said.
"But that's not every family, a lot of young adults are heavily independent and unaware of the cost of medical care."
And agents said they haven't gotten many calls from young adults seeking advice on insurance.
"I'm not actually getting a lot of interest and you'd think that I would being from the age group," said Nicole Nieuwkoop, a 28-year-old agent at The Lynn Company.
Nieuwkoop said even people she expected to be up-to-date on current events and politics surprisingly don't know the details of the law.
Jonathan Torres, outreach and education specialist for the United Way of Kern County, said that young invincibles are the toughest group of potential customers to reach. So he tries a different approach -- get the parents on board.
"What I've tried to do is target families with young invincibles and that's easier than targeting the young invincibles themselves...They have someone who's concerned for their safety, concerned for their wellbeing," Torres said
Sure enough, when Carpenter gets a call from a young adult, it's usually because their parents prodded them to call her.
"I would say the 18-to-30 group the parents are still actively involved in making sure they apply for something, encouraging them, coaching them, saying, 'Call Robin,'" she laughed.
The groups try to stress that even if a young adult is healthy now, an accident or unexpected illness could swoop in and ruin them financially right at the start of their adult life and career.
SPREADING THE WORD
Nieblas, the graduate student, said she learned a bit about the Affordable Care Act from a guest speaker who visited one of her classes, but she still thinks she and her fellow students need more information.
Nieblas said Associated Students Inc. -- CSUB's student government -- hopes to host an information session next quarter so students can get a better understanding of the law. Torres and outreach workers at the Community Health Initiative of Kern County are also plotting to partner with CSUB, BC and vocational colleges to get on campus and talk to students.
"We have until March 31 to get people enrolled so the next few months we're just going to be hitting it hard," said Edgar Aguilar, the health initiative's program manager.
While enrollment efforts for young adults may not be as visible in Kern County compared to bigger cities -- for instance, Young Invincibles did outreach at Los Angeles music festivals -- several local groups obtained grants to target young folks.
The health initiative received grant money to hire an outreach coordinator tasked with getting in touch with hard-to-reach populations, including former foster youth and young, single men. Torres' position at United Way is also a paid for by a grant.
Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in Bakersfield is also using grant money to get in touch with young invincibles. Pedro Elias, director of public affairs for the group's Bakersfield region, said it has reached about 1,100 people in the last five months through classroom presentations and booths at community fairs.
Planned Parenthood also has an enrollment counselor and will have two more in the new year to help people through the process of signing up.
But it will probably take a lot more than just community groups' outreach plans to get Kern's young people excited about insurance. Linda Leu, California research and policy director for Young Invincibles, said young adults need to step up and learn what's going on so they can help themselves and their friends.
"At this point we need everyone to kind of empower themselves and educate themselves and be that person for their peers," Leu said
Andrew Vanderpool, 26, of Shafter, said he would share his experiences with other people his age after he explored his options on Covered California's website and finally picked a plan.
Vanderpool had some issues with the website, which he mostly blames on a spotty Internet connection, but managed to select a bronze plan from Health Net on Thursday night. If he is approved for the plan, his monthly premium will only be $40 a month after subsidies.
"I just wanted to get it out of the way" and avoid the penalty, Vanderpool said of his first insurance purchasing experience.
Vanderpool said he understands why his friends with children might be worried about insurance, but he is pretty healthy and only makes $10 an hour at his security guard job.
"I'm single. I got no kids to worry about. I'm fine," Vanderpool said.