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If they're not outright poor as a class, young adults in this country are at least very, very broke. The average collegian graduates with more than $20,000 in debt, headed for a job market where real hourly wages have kept pace with neither inflation nor the cost of living. Young adults are broke in part because of their unprecedented schoolingin the latest census figures, 28 percent of those between 25 and 29 reported holding a bachelor's degreewhich promised to pluck them away from the constellation of problems plaguing America's underclass, whether it was trouble with housing or inadequate medical care.
Yet there they are, these latest inheritors of the American dream, lined up in emergency rooms for toothaches and the flu, not because they're having emergencies, but because they don't have health insurance, and emergency rooms, unlike private doctors, are obliged to give them care. Since 1987, the number of uninsured young adults has grown at twice the rate of older adults, even though the demographic itself is shrinking. One-quarter to one-third of adults under 35 went without insurance for all of 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are availablean increase of 1.2 million from the year before. Half were uninsured for some part of 2002. Of the 43.6 million uninsured adults in the U.S., 41 percent are young.
Of all the rationales John Kerry and George Bush will give this year as they stump for their individual visions of helping the nation's uninsured, one of the most pragmatic is that those little plastic cards can make the difference, for a crucial group of consumers, between having a financial parachute and cratering into debt.
Maria Davidson, of Meriden, Connecticut, was 26 and working for low pay with no benefits when her seven-year-old son tried to kill himself. The ambulance took him to Yale-New Haven Hospital. She had no private coverage for herself and her family. Her children were not eligible for public plans, and she wasn't aware of programs that could have covered the hospital expenses. Her son amassed $3,900 in bills that Davidson just couldn't pay. That was nine years ago. By the time the bill was resolved as the result of a lawsuit, she owed, with interest, over $6,000. Collection agencies were garnishing her wages and had put a lien on her condo.
Much of her story is sadly typical. A survey published in May by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit based in New York City, found that of the uninsured between 19 and 29, half had trouble making payments, had been contacted by a collection agency, or had modified their lifestyles to pay off medical bills.
And the cost hardly stops with lost purchasing power. The Commonwealth Fund's survey found that more than half of those young and not covered had gone without needed medical care in the last year, which included not seeing a doctor, failing to fill a prescription, or skipping a recommended medical test, treatment, or follow-up visit.
Long Islander Fred Gumm, 26, now has health insurance through his job at Starbucks, which, he said, is "pretty much the only reason I work there." He went without coverage for two and a half years, during and after school at SUNY-New Paltz. While uninsured, he broke a few fingers and injured his shoulder and his back. He didn't go to the doctor because he couldn't afford the bill, and as a result, the injuries healed badly and still trouble him.
The story for middle-class kids these days is that you're covered by your family's insurance until you graduate college, and then you're on your own. For those not in school, the cutoff comes even sooner. "You turn 19 and lose your parents' coverage," said Sara Collins, an economist for the Commonwealth Fund.
In theory, you quickly get a job that comes with insurance. That's the way our system is designed to work, with employers rather than the government providing coverage. But as premiums have risen, companies have begun to consider forgoing health plans. In September, the trade journal BenefitNews.com reported that among companies with 10 to 49 workers, the percentage of those offering insurance dropped from 66 percent to 62 percent. That four-point dip may not sound like much, but the journal estimated it could represent some 200,000 businesses. What's more, young people tend to work for smaller firmsthink entrepreneurial start-upsand only 55 percent of companies with fewer than 10 workers carry health plans. A May 2003 report by the Commonwealth Fund found that 65 percent of working young adults are eligible for an employer-sponsored plan, compared to 77 percent of older adults.
What looked like a relatively seamless transition for your parents looks for you like a rickety bridge. You're not making much money, you've got student debt, the job market stinks, and what jobs exist aren't promising much. "The kinds of jobs you're eligible for are the kinds that often don't come with health insurance," Collins said.
America's approach to paying for medical care stretches back to World War II, when regulations made accident and health insurance for employees tax-exempt. Meanwhile, a simultaneous wage freeze and worker shortage encouraged employers to offer insurance as a perk to attract labor, explained Ken McDonnell, a research analyst with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.