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Taking Back the Microphone

The public option matters because it will create an immediately affordable choice for the 80% of young people making less than $40,000 per year. It is young America's coverage plan.
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By Ari A. Matusiak, Matthew Segal, & Hilary Doe

There is a tired truism in politics: if you are not heard above the din, you have not spoken. Such is true for the national debate on health care reform these past few weeks, driven and derided by din. Whether at a town hall forum in Middle America, a joint session of Congress, or protest against big government on the national mall, the media has focused almost all of its recent attention on the loudest shouting.

Yet with the microphones pointed at the strident talkers, the pundits have developed a damning narrative about young Americans: the generation that made Barack Obama the President does not care about health care reform. They think they're invincible. The legions that embraced "yes we can" have apparently become the constituency of "not that interested."

The narrative is plain wrong. Young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 represent the largest group of uninsured in the country. We have the highest rate of injury-related emergency room visits - seven million in 2005-06 alone. Fifteen percent of us suffer from chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease and other conditions requiring regular care. And the rising unemployment rate of our demographic, currently standing at 18.5%--the highest since 1948--puts us at an even greater risk for insufficient health care coverage. Only 50% of young Americans receive health care through an employer, compared to 75% of people over 30. Of the young Americans who have been affected by job loss, 46% have seen their health coverage disappear. Another 20% of young adults, who have been forced to take part-time jobs that typically do not offer employees health coverage, will likely also remain uninsured.

But this is about more than statistics. It's about people we know and stories we've heard. It's about the friend who removed medical staples from his leg with an office supply staple remover because he couldn't afford the return hospital visit. Or the friend who suffers from hypertension and a rare auto-immune disorder and has to make major life choices - which job to take, when to get pregnant - based on the prohibitive costs and arbitrary policies of the health insurance industry. It's about the young woman in Ohio who didn't go to the doctor when she started feeling sick because she didn't have insurance. She died last week of swine flu. She was 22.

The health care crisis in America is young America's crisis too. And it is time that we stood up and demanded a caliber of reform from Washington that our generation as well as every American deserves.

The policy decisions currently being made will have major consequences for young people. Much, for example, has been made these past few weeks about the public option, whether it should be in any final health care reform package (it should) and whether it has the political legs to make it across the finish line (it must). It matters because it will create an immediately affordable choice for the 80% of young people making less than $40,000 per year. The public option is young America's coverage plan.

What happens if there is no public option? Something along the lines of the "young invincible" plan introduced in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus's bill last week. Aimed at young Americans between the ages of 18-to-25 or for anyone whose insurance premiums would be more than 10 percent of their income, it is essentially a high deductible catastrophic care plan. You pay your premiums. In return, you get a $3,000 deductible and a plan that covers some undefined categories of preventive care but provides no support for chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes. If you're a young college graduate and can't find an affordable comprehensive insurance option, you would have health care in name only. Sure, you would get a monthly premium invoice from your insurance company. But if you needed to refill your inhaler or if you started feeling ill, you would be on your own. For someone making a $35,000 salary, that potentially means thousands of dollars in medical payments per year.

That's outrageous math. And it is aimed directly at our generation. Instead of playing into the media narrative of apathy and disinterest, it's time that we take back the microphone and once again demand change. It's time for our generation to call on Congress to put a cap on insurance premiums for low-income Americans, let young people stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26, and offer a public option that would make affordable insurance available to all. It's time for young Americans to come together again. Let's get this done.

*Ari Matusiak is the co-founder of Young Invincibles

*Matthew Segal is the founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE)

*Hilary Doe is the director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network