March 21, 2010 in Opinion

Young need health reform

Jamie Tobias Neely
 

After college graduation Neleigh Olson packed her Buick and drove all the way to Kentucky’s Churchill Downs. She dreamed of riding racehorses.

The graduate of Mt. Spokane High School and Eastern Washington University didn’t much worry about how she’d pay for health insurance. At that point, she still qualified for coverage under her dad’s plan. But now that she’s 25, she’s paying the premiums for private insurance. An exercise rider for as many as eight racehorses each morning, she’s banged up too often to go without it.

This weekend Congress is scheduled to take a historic vote on health care reform. For all of the controversy and debate, the new law would be unlikely to change health care substantially for many Americans.

But for people ages 19 to 29, one of the largest uninsured groups in the country, it could make a significant impact.

The version of the health care bill before the House this weekend would allow young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26. It would extend Medicaid benefits to people earning low wages. And it would provide subsidies and health insurance exchange programs to help make coverage more affordable.

While some young people avoid buying health insurance because they’ve decided they’re so healthy that they can take the risk, most make that choice simply because they can’t afford the premiums.

Twenty-somethings may not be as likely as seniors to face a heart attack or a stroke, but they’re much more likely to pursue sports like rock climbing, white-water rafting and snowboarding. They have the highest rate of injury-related visits to the emergency room of any age group. Twenty-four percent, according to the Commonwealth Fund, of 18- to 29-year-olds visited the ER with injuries last year.

In that age group 18 percent struggle with a chronic health condition, and in 2007 one-quarter of new HIV-AIDS diagnoses were among young adults.

When young people face a medical crisis, they’re much less likely to have accumulated savings accounts or investments to help cushion the bills.

In 2007, 13.2 million 19- to 29-year-olds (29 percent) lacked health insurance.

But the loudest arguments in the debate over health care reform have come not from young adults but from seniors.

Olson thinks she knows why. Pursuing the job she loves takes precedence over figuring out the intricacies of insurance coverage.

Olson still relies on e-mail reminders from her mother to jog her memory about making her insurance payments. Her original policy doubled in price, so her mother helped find a new one with a larger deductible that now costs $202 per month. It primarily provides major medical coverage.

The insurance is difficult to use because Olson regularly travels the racing circuit. Although she’s based in Kentucky, she’s currently working in Boynton Beach, Fla. If she were to face a serious medical condition, she’d need to find providers that would accept her out-of-state insurance.

A charitable program for Kentucky racetrack workers helps out with health costs such as a visit to the chiropractor or a pair of new contact lenses. Olson also deals with a recurring shoulder injury and routine cuts and bruises.

While parents of 20-somethings may be acutely aware of their children’s need for health insurance, for these young people it may loom as only one of a mysterious array of new adult challenges in their lives.

“There are all these details of being a grown-up that nobody tells you about,” Olson says.

That’s probably why few of Olson’s friends select academic or career paths based on health care concerns.

“When you’re 18 or 19 (and headed off to college), you’re more excited about the unlimited food card you’re going to get (at the cafeteria) than ‘I’m going to have health care when I’m 40,’ ” she says.

Health insurance may make a college freshman’s eyes glaze over. The prospect of grabbing free pudding in the dining hall at midnight? Now that’s another story.

Seniors, in contrast, are only too aware of the details of adult life and the prospect of failing health. Unlike their grandchildren, scurrying to classes or tackling new jobs, they also have plenty of time to advocate politically for their own health care needs.

Whether seniors lobby for their grandkids’ coverage or not, the House should pass the health care reform bill this weekend. That’s the best way to keep young Americans like Olson galloping off to a healthy future.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.

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