Recent college graduates are the largest group of uninsured Americans
“One moment was all it took,” says Rose Sniatowski.
On Oct. 26, Sniatowski and her boyfriend were returning to Santa Cruz after visiting relatives in Humbolt County. In that one, crucial moment another car veered into their lane, hitting them head on at about 55 miles per hour. The car, an Acura RSX, was completely totaled.
Sniatowski graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2007 and has not had a job that offers health insurance since nor has she been able to afford the high monthly premiums of individual insurance policies. “We don’t know if the other driver even has car insurance,” Sniatowski says. “I’m applying for MediCal, but in order to qualify I have to be disabled for a year.” With a fractured vertebrae and a laundry list of other injuries and broken bones, Sniatowski will most likely be healing for over a year. However, the accident could cost her well over a half million dollars if she does not receive financial assistance.
The largest group of uninsured individuals is between the ages of 18 and 24, and their lack of insurance is taking a toll on their financial future. Twenty-nine percent of this demographic goes without health insurance according to a recent report by California Public Interest Group (CALPIRG) entitled “Uncovered: How California’s Health Care System Fails Young People.” In comparison, 17 percent of older adults are uninsured.
There are several reasons that this age group has such a high rate of uninsured people. Recent graduates are now officially out on their own and cut off from parents’ and university-sponsored health insurance policies.
After being kicked off a parent’s insurance, it is increasingly rare to find an entry-level position in today’s workforce that offers insurance coverage. Only 53 percent of 19 through 29 year olds were offered insurance through their employers, according to a 2007 Commonwealth Fund study, while 74 percent of 30 through 64 year olds were eligible for coverage through their jobs. This drastic separation makes up for much of the reason recent graduates go without insurance.
Additionally, the financial burden that accompanies paying for an individual policy can be too much for recent graduates to handle. The average monthly premium for someone between the ages of 18 and 24 is $80 per month, according to eHealthInsurance.com. The aforementioned CALPIRG report states, “Over a third of workers ages 19 to 29 earn less than $10 per hour.” With low wages and plenty of other financial responsibilities, such as repaying student loans, the money for monthly premiums is often not available.
Along with recent graduates, university students are susceptible to insurmountable health care costs. Every student at UCSC, for example, is required to have health insurance, and if they cannot provide their own adequate coverage, the university provides coverage through the Blue Cross Network. A fee of $383 per quarter ($96 per month) for undergraduates or $958 per quarter ($260 per month) for graduate students is tacked on to each student’s tuition bill.
“I don’t think students are fully aware of what they’re paying for,’ says Kevin Neuberger, spokesperson for the CALPIRG healthcare campaign at UCSC. “The coverage caps at around $200,000.” Most medical catastrophes, like Rose Sniatowski’s, can far exceed this cap, leaving students to determine how to pay for the rest of their bills.
CALPIRG is doing what it can to focus on healthcare and health insurance reform for young adults. “We’re compiling a report throughout college campuses, reaching out to students and their peers, sending health care horror stories to Senator [Diane] Feinstein and generally passing on the injustices of the healthcare system,” says Mike Russo, healthcare advocate and staff attorney for CALPIRG. With these tactics, Russo is confident that there will be some change in policies. “I feel like we have been successful in getting some of the key policies in,” he says. “We’re hoping to get across the finish line sometime soon.”
Many young adults ages 18 through 24 who go without health insurance end up in large amounts of debt, even for minor injuries or illnesses. Without the financial stability to pay the bills back, their credit ends up paying the price. “I ended up going to the emergency room several times and I had to accept fees and go into debt and ruin my credit,” says Sam Rutel, an uninsured 21 year old. The question often becomes a matter of paying rent or going to the doctor or, more drastically, facing bankruptcy due to a car accident.
Other countries around the world have been able to provide healthcare to their citizens, and in many cases its tourists as well, while the United States is struggling to reform the system that is already in place. “When I went to Cuba in 2001, I noticed that they have highly skilled doctors and staff and a great system for free health care,” says Rutel. “They’re lacking supplies and medical equipment, mostly due to the embargo with the U.S., but people don’t get turned away.”
The good news for people like Rutel and Sniatowski is that the House of Representatives managed to pass H.R. 3962 for health care reform on Nov. 7 with a vote of 220-215, and the Senate has a looming deadline to the same but as of print time had not. The House bill demonstrates a need for insurance reform: “(A) enacts strong insurance market reforms; (B) creates new Health Insurance Exchange, with a public health insurance option alongside private plans; (C) includes sliding scale affordability credits; and (D) initiates shared responsibility among workers employers and the Government; so that all Americans have coverage of essential health benefits.” Recent grads are holding their breath, trying to stay healthy and drive extra carefully until the two factions of congress can agree on a final bill for health insurance reform.