Juliette Dallas-Feeney: Young and invincible

We’ve been dubbed the “young invincibles” by insurance companies – young adults living without health care because it is either too expensive or we think we don’t need it.

Amidst the raucous health care town halls and protests over the summer, older Americans often took center stage voicing their concerns. But young people across the country are beginning to realize that whatever plan passes through Congress will directly affect them, for better or for worse. A few weeks ago, a University of Colorado student, Zach Lahn, made headlines when he questioned the President’s proposal of a public option, challenging him to an Oxford-style debate. Earlier this summer, a student group named Campus Progress protested on Capitol Hill for affordable health insurance.

Health care policy think tanks estimate that almost one third of uninsured people in the United States are between the ages of 19 and 29. It varies from state to state, but if you are covered under your parents’ plan as a full-time college student, you are usually dropped once you graduate – something I will have to worry about when I graduate in December. A tough economy leaves college graduates with even fewer options in the job hunt, making it difficult to find an employer that even offers coverage to working young adults.

So, what is it? Do we really think we’re invincible, that we can flip off the insurance-mongers by refusing coverage because we’re young and more likely to be healthier than our elders? Maybe for some of us rebels. But realistically, just because we’re young doesn’t automatically mean we’re healthy. The young adult demographic is the most likely to smoke, binge drink and has a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Without insurance, access to the health care system becomes more difficult and costly.

The reason why so many young adults are living without insurance is much more than just a bad attitude. If it were affordable, more young adults would likely opt to get it. Post-college, we have to pay off student loans, pay the rent, put food on the table – a $1,500 deductible is almost laughable on an entry-level salary. And if we can’t afford it, the financial burden is placed on our families, regardless of whether or not they can afford it.

There are some plans making their way through Congress that could help remedy the 13.2 million uninsured young adults in the United States. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill requires group health plans to extend coverage for dependent young adults up to age 26, regardless of whether or not they’re enrolled in school. Cost-wise, this proposal would actually lower the overall cost of group health insurance because the probability of extensive use of the health care system for this age group is relatively low. In this case, the premiums that the insurance holders pay to the insurance company would likely exceed the incremental costs to cover this low-risk population of young adults. There is a lower cost and lower risk per insured.

A tougher question for society is how to insure low-income, young adults in the same age bracket. One proposal expands Medicaid eligibility and provides subsidies based on income. This would make insurance significantly more affordable for young adults who were knocked off Medicaid at age 19, but their needs may be greater, especially since nearly half of low-income young adults are parents, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. What is the real cost of covering this demographic in need – what is the likelihood of need versus the cost of society?

The next step Congress takes is bound to anger some and appease others. Most Americans, young and old, can agree that the current health care system is flawed and something needs to be changed. It’s that “something” we just can’t seem to settle on. But because so many young adults are living without insurance, it is important for Congress to pass reforms that will prevent young people from losing the coverage they have, and extend it to those who cannot afford it. No doubt this is a multi-layered problem, but any reform is a good step in the right direction. Congress needs to act now on no-brainer reforms like extending coverage under parents’ policies until age 26, and listen to their constituents to find ways to get more uninsured low-income young adults covered.

Regardless, none of us are invincible. We are all vulnerable because, well, life happens. We get injured, we get sick and we grow old. When life throws curveballs at us, our health care system should work with us, not against us.

The writer, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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