The outreach workers joined the line at a Michael “Air” Jordan shoe launch. They went to Denny’s after the District’s clubs had closed. They hung out at happy hours with $4 drinks and $7 bar food, laundromats, gyms, and Sunday brunches.
This month, as Republicans in Congress moved to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and President Trump signed an executive order weakening its provisions, D.C. health insurance exchange officials were rushing to sign up millennials before the open enrollment period ends Jan. 31.
“When we talk to folks, some say they want to make sure they have a policy in place,” before it’s too late, said Mila Kofman, executive director of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “All of our numbers are up from last year. More people are using the website to enroll. Our call center volume is very high. I have not seen a chilling effect on enrollment.”
Many people know that Trump has vowed to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, known as Obamacare, which has extended insurance to about 20 million people.
“I’m worried about it,” said Trenton Hardison, 24, a financial consultant who lives in Northeast Washington and relies on the Affordable Care Act for his health insurance. He was waiting tables this month at RedRocks on H Street NE, where D.C. Health Link workers had set up a station to sign up young people attending happy hour. “Hopefully, it doesn’t get repealed.”
On its website, D.C. Health Link, the District’s health insurance exchange, notified users: “The outcome of the 2016 presidential election doesn’t impact your ability to enroll in affordable quality health insurance for 2017. . . . Open enrollment for individuals and families ends on January 31, 2017. Small businesses can sign up throughout the year. Residents can apply for Medicaid throughout the year.” It doesn’t address the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s executive action.
Since D.C. Health Link launched, the District’s uninsured rate has dropped to just 3 percent, among the lowest rates of uninsured when compared with states across the country.
“Forty-one percent of new customers are ages 26 to 34,” Kofman said. “When we first started, we looked at the uninsured data in the District. We tried to focus on populations that tend to not have coverage. In D.C. more than 60 percent of the uninsured were 40 and under.” The D.C. exchange opened in 2013, and they deployed all kinds of unconventional strategies to encourage millennials to sign up for health care.
“All of the outreach efforts have focused on the idea, We don’t expect people to come us. We go to them, where they live, work, shop, play and pray,” Kofman said.
People can sign up on their mobile devices.
“If you use an iPhone or Android device, you can pretty much do everything and get enrolled,” she said. “Our mission is to get as many people covered as want coverage.”
At Red Rocks, workers attached D.C. Health Link fliers to pizza boxes.
Patrice Cunningham, 29, general manager at Red Rocks, said that when D.C. Health Link outreach workers called about setting up a sign-up table at the restaurant, her immediate response was yes.
“I’m always willing to join forces with different groups,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to make sure Red Rocks is socially conscious and is part of the community. It’s important everyone is insured. You never know what can happen to you. Life is short.”
James O’Brien, owner of RedRocks, agreed. “It’s important, obviously, for everyone to have health insurance,” he said.
On a recent Thursday night, Kishan Putta, a community outreach worker for D.C. Health Link, slid into a booth at RedRocks. Across the restaurant, D.C. Health Link workers were setting out giveaways — hand warmers, pens, water bottles, hand sanitizers — for anyone interested in stopping by the booth to get information on insurance.
“We are targeting the young invincibles,” Putta said. Getting them to sign up “takes being reminded in different ways. If we email you, and text you and you see it on the bus and at the bar, eventually, we will get you. Then we give them this sticker that says, ‘I’M COVERED.”
Putta waved over Alex Rossi, 25, a RedRocks server and bartender.
“Would you mind if we chat with you about health coverage?”
Rossi was reluctant to sign up for health care. He said he’d rather save money for rent.
“I’ve come close to not being able to make deposits on apartments I wanted,” Rossi said. “That is currently paramount to me. I may be planning to move to Houston.”
Rossi’s passion, he said, is hip-hop music. Health care is not that important to him. “I’m 25,” Rossi said. “I can make it to 75.”
Putta explained that the goal of the D.C. Health Link campaign is to reach young adults like him, who don’t think they’ll have serious health problems in the immediate future.
Rossi, who said he’s been to the hospital only twice in his life, paused and contemplated the term “young invincibles.”
“I’ve never heard that phrase but that hit me there,” he said. “That struck me when he said that. Maybe that is how I’m feeling. Maybe that is my mentality. But I’m going to think about signing up.”