MILWAUKEE -- Nearly half of the Wisconsin and West Virginia residents who signed up for health insurance through the new online exchanges are between the ages of 55 and 64, tying for the highest rate in the nation and raising the possibility that the two states could see higher insurance rates down the line.
Figures released by the federal government Monday show that 45 percent of enrollees in those two states were between the ages of 55 and 64. By comparison, the next-highest rate was 21 percent of enrollees in each state between the ages of 45 to 54.
Generally, states want a sizable number of young people to enroll so their participation offsets the costs of covering older, sicker Americans. If enough young people decline to buy insurance through state or federal marketplaces, it could throw off the market's equilibrium and cause insurance rates to rise dramatically the following year.
More than 2 million Americans signed up for government-subsidized private insurance by the end of December, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Of those enrollees, 33 percent were ages 55 to 64.
Federal officials said the higher rates in Wisconsin and West Virginia could reflect state demographics, as well as a tendency for older residents to sign up before younger people. Officials said they expect a surge of younger people signing up toward the end of open enrollment March 31.
"We think more and more young people will sign up as time goes by," said Gary Cohen, a deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "We're very pleased with the percentages that we have so far."
Messages left with the offices of the insurance commissioners in both states weren't immediately returned.
Insurance industry consultant Robert Laszewski agreed that demographics could be an issue. The median age in West Virginia is 41.3, making its population one of the oldest in the nation, and Wisconsin is about in the middle of the pack with a median age of 38.5. The national median is 37.2.
"I don't see any correlation with anything. There's no obvious answer that I can see," he said. "It may very well be that enrollments are not over."
A recent poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics showed about 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 were on the fence about whether to sign up, with the rest split fairly evenly between those likely to enroll and those who probably won't.
The survey of 2,000 young adults was conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 11, after the first month of enrollment on the health care exchanges and when signup problems were at their peak.
The government's latest enrollment figures show that nearly 103,000 Wisconsin residents completed applications for a health insurance plan through the exchange, and 40,752 completed the enrollment process and selected a plan. Some 56 percent were female, slightly above the national figure of 54 percent.
In West Virginia, 18,284 applied for a plan and 4,889 had selected a plan. That's a 300 percent increase from the 1,237 West Virginians that had enrolled as of Dec. 11, according to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, the only private insurer participating in West Virginia's health insurance marketplace.