Believe it or not, life after college can be healthy

With the melting of the winter snow, graduation season appears on the horizon. As a senior, I’ll be sad to leave behind the “bright college years,” but as a health advocate, I’m more concerned about another pressing matter. We may never break the friendships formed at Yale, but we will lose our health insurance.

A Yale education prepares us for many things, but it does little to help us face the sea of acronyms and bureaucratic complexity known as the U.S. health care system. Get ready for COBRA, HIPPA, HMOs, PPOs and much, much more. Aren’t you excited?

Don’t mess up, however, or you might end up paying a lot. If you have a pre-existing condition like diabetes, going without health insurance for just a few months will drive up your premiums and may even make you uninsurable on the private health care market. It’s not fair, of course, since young adults are generally the least-expensive age group to insure, but it’s the system we’re forced to deal with.

With so many other things to worry about after graduation (rent, a job, a life), why bother with all this complexity and expense? You’re healthy, right, so why do you need a doctor? You don’t have any money, anyway, so if you do get hit by a bus, why not just declare bankruptcy and let someone else pay for it (like nearly one million Americans did last year)?

I satirize the problem, but in the end, it’s a real and pressing one for our generation. While many Yalies with cushy jobs at large investment banks or consulting firms will be fine, the majority of youth today are not doing so well. According to a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund, nearly 40 percent of college graduates and over 50 percent of high-school graduates who do not attend college will lack health insurance at some point during the five years after they graduate. Young adults ages 20-29 are not only one of the most likely age groups to be uninsured, but from 2000-2004, they accounted for almost half of the increase in the number of uninsured.

Youth activism and health care reform have been hot topics in the presidential campaign this year, but so far they have been treated as separate entities. While Obama is a rockstar for the demographic that is most likely to be uninsured, Hillary is the one who tends to draw most “healthcare voters” — predominately older women who already have insurance. Both candidates, however, have something to offer the health of our generation.

Obama, for one, is right that mandating health insurance coverage will be difficult to enforce for young adults. The complex bureaucracy is already so difficult that adding more rules may not address the problem of why people don’t sign up in the first place. This bureaucracy problem is complicated by the fact that young adults tend to move frequently from state to state for school and for jobs.

On the other hand, Clinton is right that requiring all young adults to have health insurance is essential. By having everyone contribute to health insurance, a truly universal health care scheme will result in lower premiums for each person, and by allowing more access to preventive care, more health insurance for young adults will help reduce total health costs in the long run. Prevention is especially important for young adults who are establishing health habits that will affect them for the rest of their lives — according to the National Adolescent Health Information Center, as much as $700 billion is spent each year on preventable adolescent health problems, such as sexually transmitted diseases, injuries and drug use.

As we wait for the candidates to follow through with their promises, several states are taking action. Next week, the National Conference of Insurance Legislators is expected to vote on a recommendation to allow young adults to remain as dependents on their parents’ health insurance coverage until age 25. Opponents of this policy call it a “slacker mandate,” but I would prefer to call it an “opportunity option” that allows young adults more flexibility and freedom to become productive members of the workforce at a critical juncture in their lives.

Other states, such as Connecticut, are looking at additional options for reaching young adults, such as offering lower cost health insurance for younger age groups and initiatives to increase the use of primary care.

While it’s not clear which combination of policies is the best, our generation needs to do something. In a few weeks, I will be organizing a conference through the Roosevelt Institution in Washington, D.C., for hundreds of young leaders from across the country to address these issues and propose our own solutions.

We’re not slackers; we’re just students hoping for a chance at a healthier future.

Robert Nelb is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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