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Uninsured young people face tough decisions amidst healthcare debate

by David McGee

What good does it do to have the knowledge to know that something is wrong with you, something needs to be done to treat it and your only health-care options are the aisles of your local drug store? That is the reality for many young people in America today who have moved into the opening chapters of their adult lives when the lining of our society is being torn at the seams by war, unemployment, inflation and then the added insecurity of not knowing what is going to happen if they get hurt or sick.

For most people, turning 18 is a time of celebration and involves a look into a happy, long future. What many fail to realize is that becoming a legal adult includes many hurdles to overcome before they gain a stable position in life — a career, transportation, housing and then, possibly, health care.

When I asked a random group of 20-somethings without health insurance how they felt about their current status, it was clear that they were eager to find a solution and see a change in the circumstances, but three As kept coming up: afraid, afford and annoyed.

AFRAID

The fears people feel involving health care are almost exclusively focused around not having any and what can be incurred when you finally get sick and are not covered. Dennis, 24, works at Abercrombie & Fitch and says that because of not having health insurance he has to be extra cautious out of fear that he may get hurt and not have the resources to cover medical treatment. He realizes this plan is a gamble and does not account for the unexpected.

Christina Nevin, 22, is unemployed and expressed her fears about what can happen when medical coverage runs out but medication and health care needs don’t correlate with your insurance policy. Christina said that since being laid off in June 2009, she has been unable to keep up with premiums and is “digging myself in debt with medical bills I can’t afford… but I can’t afford to go without health care.”

The amount of debt that can come with not having health insurance but still needing health care has hit lowincome, privately insured people with chronic conditions especially hard according to the National Institute of Health Statistics. Between 2001 and 2003 the number of low-income, privately insured people who spent more than 5 percent of their income on out-of-pocket health care bills grew from 28 percent to 42 percent. This type of debt can lead to further health care issues as people encounter more medical bill problems and are more likely to forgo or delay needed medical care. Christina, like the 3 million other uninsured, chronically-ill people in America with medical bill problems, is experiencing the frustration that can become overwhelming and had to make sacrifices. Of these Americans, four in 10 went without needed care, two in three put off care and seven in 10 did not fill a prescription in the past year because of cost concerns.

AFFORD

The sad fact of the matter is that most young adults aren’t in a position to support all of the costs of living combined with health insurance.

It’s a clear choice if your options are between putting food on the table and gas in the car or paying for health insurance when you are in your physical prime.

Joyce Braun, 26, had coverage through her parents and then her job as a bank teller. Now working at a restaurant where she makes enough to support her daily needs but is not offered health insurance, it isn’t possible to make a low-wage paycheck stretch to cover the cost of health care for a single, young adult without children. Like many, because of the high cost of uninsured health care she doesn’t go to the doctor or dentist even when she knows it’s necessary.

“I just can’t afford it… especially when jobs are hard to come by these days… just rather go without and suffer.”

ANNOYED

Take the obstacles of getting insurance coverage and add the confusing, complicated nature of health care and the reforms leads to a disconnected and frustrated group who are ready to throw their hands in the air. Colby Kirk, 25, has been uninsured since 2003 because of the expenses involved, and hasn’t sought any because of the discouraging amount of obstacles to gaining coverage. He feels the information isn’t being presented in a way that is easily accessible or understood.

“The information wasn’t exposed to me. I’ve looked for help but didn’t know where to look. Our age group has lots of courage but we don’t know what to do, where to look or what to look for,” he said.

The downside of being uninsured is two-fold. Much of the strain on the health care system comes from caring for uninsured Americans, leading to an overall rise in the cost of coverage. Second is the impact it has on the individual’s health. Without being covered, the person is going to avoid going for treatment as long as possible, delaying the care she needs. The effects of delayed treatment cause something that could have been easily treated early on to progress into something worse and more difficult to treat. Bringing the problem full circle, the person is going to have become so ill they won’t be eligible for coverage and will be forced to seek treatment without insurance, pushing overall health care costs even higher.

It’s a vicious circle. Within the 1,000 page healthcare reform bill being worked and reworked are some changes that just might be able to turn the ship around. Three major changes that will make a difference to young adults are:

• Coverage will be extended from a parent’s health insurance to cover children until the age of 26 or 27, allowing the child to gain more independence and financial security before being required to support themselves.

• Health insurance coverage will be required for everyone. If they are unable to afford it, assistance will be provided by the government. While this sounds less than palatable at first, most other Western countries have some form of this in place.

• Under the new legislation, young, single adults without children will be eligible for Medicaid and will be more likely to get it. According to David Coates, professor of political science at Wake Forest, a very small portion of young adults currently qualify for Medicare. Under the new healthcare policy, they would receive Medicare as long as their earnings are at or just above the poverty level.

To these young people and others like them, it is clear that the current system is broken and unsustainable.

“I’m saving up now for when I get sick or hurt but that’s not the same as having insurance when I really need it,” Kirk says.

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