ADVERTISEMENT

NEW YORK – As politics muddy the rollout of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, insurers and advocacy groups are pursuing a creative new strategy in the quest to get millions of young people to sign up for health insurance: They’re appealing to their mothers.

In one cheeky campaign, AARP is urging mothers to send e-cards to their children reminding them to sign up. One e-card reads, “As a reward for signing up for health insurance, I’ll defriend you on Facebook.” Another group, Organizing for Action, is seeking to steer holiday conversations toward health care by encouraging parents to have “the talk” with their adult children. And a Colorado group is promoting an ad featuring a hapless young man who calls his mother from the golf course: “Yo, Mom, do I got insurance?”

Recruiting enough young people is a major goal of the Obama administration because insurers need healthy customers to offset the cost of caring for those with expensive medical needs. The goal carries even more urgency now that insurers are considering a proposal by President Obama to let people, many of them healthy, stay on their existing policies for another year. If fewer of those people buy insurance in the new marketplaces, signing up young people without insurance will be even more crucial. Young people also account for a major chunk of the uninsured. About 40 percent of the estimated 41 million uninsured people nationwide who are eligible for coverage are ages 18 to 35, according to the Obama administration.

Even as supporters are enlisting mothers in the effort to sign up their adult children, critics have mounted an equally aggressive and well-funded campaign urging young people to “opt out” of signing up for coverage. Opponents use many of the same marketing tools as the health care law’s supporters, reaching out to young people on social media and through Web videos.

Advocacy groups and insurers are expected to make a major marketing push beginning in early December, when the Obama administration has said it expects the malfunctioning federal website HealthCare.gov to be working better. They have their targets set on two major deadlines: Dec. 23, when insurance must be purchased for coverage beginning Jan. 1, and March 31, when the open enrollment period will end.

Beneath the marketing campaigns’ playful language is a deeper truth: When it comes to making major life decisions like choosing a health care plan, many people – especially young adults – still turn to their mothers for help. More broadly, women make about 80 percent of the health care decisions for their families, according to the federal Labor Department.

“It’s the cutest phenomenon ever,” said Lynn Quincy, a senior health policy analyst at Consumers Union, who stumbled on the significance of mothers while conducting a focus group of men and women last year about how well people understood the language in their insurance policies. When asked who they turned to for advice about health care, the overwhelming answer was their mothers. “These people could have husbands, they could have fathers, they may have a nurse who lives next door, but they’re all going to their moms,” she said.

This approach may resonate especially well with the current crop of young adults, the millennial generation, who came of age in a recession and may still be financially dependent on their parents, say some experts.

“Millennials love their parents, and they count on them for advice,” said Morley Winograd, co-author of three books on the millennial generation. He noted that this might sound surprising to baby boomers, who famously rebelled against their parents’ generation. But millennials “assume that their parents have more worldly experience, and know about things like money and health insurance,” he said.

Mary Babich, the mother of two children in their 20s without insurance, said she had been pestering both of them to sign up. But she said she was unsure how successful she would be. “They look at it as just government bureaucracy – as almost akin to filling out their taxes,” said Babich, who lives in Wisconsin. She paused, and added, “The sad thing is, I’ve always done both of their taxes.”

A certain level of concern is just part of being a parent, said Nicole Duritz, who helped develop the AARP campaign. “I’m a mom, and I’m constantly worried about my kids, and making sure they’re making good decisions,” she said. “And health insurance falls into that category.”

That’s certainly true for Lynne Jackier, of Ithaca, who has been helping her daughter, 24, look into buying health insurance on the New York State marketplace. She also has a son, 26, who recently moved to California and is also uninsured. “I feel like, as parents, it’s our responsibility to get them to look at this now,” Jackier said.

Her daughter, Rosie Simon, works as a nanny in Westchester County and said she had been uninsured since graduating from college a few years ago. Although Simon said she had heard about the changes coming under the health care law, she added that her mother had been persistent in making sure she signed up.

Last weekend, during a visit home, the two sat down at the computer and took the initial steps of completing an application on the state marketplace.

Without insurance, Simon said, she often delayed going to the doctor when sick, or leaned on her parents for help. Jackier, who is on Medicaid and so can’t cover her daughter through private insurance, said she had become accustomed to the frustrating conversations. “She’ll get sick and I’ll say, ‘You have go to the doctor,’ ” Jackier said. “And she’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t have insurance.’ ”

The family had a scare when Simon recently developed a serious kidney infection. Her parents paid the bill, which cost a few hundred dollars. It wasn’t ideal, Simon said, but “I’m still their baby.”