Why Everyone Under 26 Should Thank Obamacare

More young adults now have healthcare -- and are putting it to use.

Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.

One of the first changes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)— aka Obamacare—was to enable young adults to stay on their parents’ private health insurance until they turned 26. This change has made it possible for more than three million young Americans to get healthcare coverage they wouldn’t have otherwise.

But that was just the first step, says Benjamin D. Sommers, MD, Ph.D., who led a study to find out whether young adults are actually getting the healthcare they need—and if they had an easier time receiving and affording medical care after this part of ACA was launched. “We found a large [positive] effect,” says Sommers, an assistant professor of health policy and economics at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham & Women's Hospital, in Boston. “The policy reduced by more than one-third the number of young adults who said they had delayed care because they couldn’t afford it.” Sommers’ research was reported in Health Affairs in December.

By the end of 2011, the rate of coverage for adults 19 to 25 had increased by nearly seven percent compared to slightly older adults. Even more heartening, coverage rates increased across all racial and ethnic groups, and among employed as well as unemployed people. “For many years, 19- to 25-year-olds in particular had struggled to obtain health insurance because they were too old to be on their parents’ plans but often were in school or had entry-level jobs that didn’t provide health insurance,” notes Sommers. “The ACA fundamentally changed this and helped millions of young adults obtain coverage and needed care.”

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Even better, there’s reason to think the coverage is reaching the people who need it most: Young adults in worse health were more likely to see an improvement in their healthcare coverage, Sommers’ research found. Since those with a poor medical history or pre-existing conditions are more likely to be denied coverage, this is encouraging news.

Longer term, better access to healthcare while young is likely to translate to better health later in life, says Sommers, especially for people with serious medical conditions. “An added benefit is that being able to stay on their parents’ plan means that many young adults can pursue schooling or new job opportunities instead of having to make job decisions solely based on where they can get health insurance,” he adds.

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And what about those young adults still not covered? Some may not be aware of the ACA benefit, so may not be taking advantage of the coverage they could get. But others have parents without insurance themselves so can’t be added to an existing plan. “The ACA’s next major expansion of health insurance coverage comes in October 2013, when Americans can begin to sign up for health insurance through insurance exchanges,” says Sommers. These “marketplaces” will allow those who are uninsured —regardless of age —to compare their options for health insurance and enroll in a plan that meets their needs.

If you’re an adult under 26, do you have health insurance? How do you get your coverage? If you’re not covered, what do you when you need medical care?

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