Young Invincibles? More Like, Still Unable To Afford Health Insurance

Nov 8, 2013

Jess Marie with her cat Moneypenny. For young adults like Marie, affordability is big issue when shopping for health plans.
Jess Marie with her cat Moneypenny. For young adults like Marie, affordability is big issue when shopping for health plans.
Credit Jess Marie

When you think of young invincibles, as the government calls those who haven’t signed up for health insurance, you may think of the dude recklessly riding his skateboard in traffic.

But national surveys show that young adults do worry about their health. And they’re interested in health insurance. A recent analysis of healthcare.gov’s first month shows that one in five visitors to the website were ages 19 to 29.

So why aren’t they buying insurance?

‘I Wish My Health Came First, And Not My Debt’
Jess Marie, an administrator at Seattle Pacific University’s art department, doesn’t have health insurance. Marie, 27, looked into getting on her husband’s health plan through his work. But that would cost $800 a month.

“Yeah, it was definitely a shock,” she said. 

Marie is an artist. She works part time at the university, so she doesn’t qualify for full coverage. She could buy a health plan through the school, but it’s too expensive.

She checked out the state’s health exchange but was disappointed to learn the premiums were still expensive, and that she wouldn’t get qualify for subsidies.

“Since my husband’s income is taken into account, that also makes it harder,” she said. “That his employer offers insurance – I didn’t know that rule would also not qualify me for a subsidy.”

Marie said she worries that if something were to happen, it would wipe out their finances. Like many of her peers, she has big school loans to pay off. And the thought of getting into medical debt stresses her out

“It’s affected almost every decision I’ve made since graduating school,” she said. “It’s sad it affects my health. I wish my health came first, and not my debt.”

Marie’s financial situation is the story of her generation. Many feel stuck; they’re saddled with student loan debts and are unable to move ahead in life, or even afford health insurance.

Tamika Butler is California director of Young Invincibles, a nonprofit group created to include voices of young adults on issues — including health care. She said young adults are uninsured at a higher rate than the rest of the population — 20 percent nationally.

“We know those numbers are higher for African-Americans and Latinos,” Butler said. “In Washington, one in three young African-Americans are currently uninsured, and one in four young Latinos.”

Butler said that as a result, young people are one of the highest users of emergency rooms. That’s costly, both for the system and for the individual.

Chris Jacob, 21, knows this firsthand. He was in the hospital two years ago for a stomach problem that took a while to diagnose.

“Everything I ate, I threw up. I was losing weight,” he recalled. “It was bad.”

Jacob, who attends Seattle Central Community College, recently looked at fliers for the state’s health exchange, hoping to buy insurance after that hospital experience.

“And now I have all the bills because I don’t have insurance so, yeah, I learned my lesson,” he said, “and I’m still paying it off.”

Health exchanges are counting on people like Jacob to sign up. Their participation in the marketplace is crucial for the Affordable Care Act to work. It helps spread the risk. 

The Young Undecided
Jess Marie may not need much convincing to buy a health plan, but her decision hinges on cost. Not having health insurance is already affecting other parts of her life.

“If someone asks me if I want to go snowshoeing, I’d be like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know,’” she said. “I consciously avoid risky things like that because I’m clumsy and I know something might happen, and it would cause us to go bankrupt if I broke a leg or something. It’s something I think about.”