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By Christina Cala/ MEDILL

Young Chicagoans stress the importance of health insurance.

Health Insurance is on young adults' radar

by I. Christina Cala
Oct 10, 2013

Chicago native John Huynh, 25, who graduated from the School of Art Institute a year ago, has a stable job as a graphic designer. Although Huynh is now uninsured, when he turns 26 in February, he must purchase insurance or he will be fined $95 or 1 percent of his income, whichever is more.

Whether or not they have it through their jobs or privately, many young Chicagoans are thinking about insurance and how the Affordable Care Act will impact them. About 2.7 million of the expected 7 million people signing up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act need to be young and healthy 26- to 34 year olds, in order to balance out costs of health care expansion. Though many are worried that young adults won’t sign up for health insurance, many young people are already signing up or thinking about it.

“I don’t have insurance and I’d like to,” Huynh said. Though he spent most of his life covered by his parents’ or school’s insurance, he opted out of his father’s plan because his monthly payment became unaffordable at $900 when his father retired. He has been uninsured for a year. “I can more or less afford it now.”

Huynh is one of nearly 600,000 Illinois residents ages 19-34 who are uninsured but are eligible for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These young adults make up 42 percent of those in Illinois who are now eligible for insurance through the ACA marketplace exchanges that opened online Oct. 1. Anyone who signs up before Dec. 15 will get insurance coverage starting Jan. 1.

“The trick with this particular group is they just simply need to understand that, even though they’re healthy and they feel fine, it doesn’t mean that there’s not still a benefit to having a primary-care physician and getting annual care visits,” said Dr. Michael Wolf, director of the Health Learning and Literacy Program at Northwestern University. HeLP works to improve the public’s understanding of the barriers to good health.

“This is where prevention comes into play,” Wolf said. Most young adults have been functioning on autopilot with their parents facilitating care for them, explained Wolf. For the most part these young people are relatively healthy and don’t have signals telling them otherwise.

“The whole point of health insurance is to help you before you get sick, so when you start to need things we can help you stay healthy,” he said. It’s also about buying into the system, he said.

Though many think it may take some convincing to sign young people up, some of these 26- to 34 year olds already see the value of insurance, according to an informal survey on the streets of Chicago.

“I currently have private insurance and as long as I can afford my private insurance I am going to stay on it,” said Stephanie Jurusz, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia College Chicago. “I’ve always had health insurance and I definitely see it as a long-term investment in my health.”

For those who are questioning whether young adults will sign up, the key to making this happen is communication about the benefits, Wolf said, so that the question is which plan works best instead of whether or not to get insurance.

“It’s easy to hear about Obamacare, but it is another thing to … understand and get a clear message on it,” he said. “There’s got to be a lot of shoe leather in terms of getting on the ground and speaking to these groups, but it’s a service everyone is going to benefit from.”