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Seeking Insurance for Young Adults

Some states are requiring healthcare companies to cover dependents longer.

January 04, 2006|From Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — In the months before colon cancer took her life, aspiring teacher Michelle Morse attended Plymouth State University full time, often wearing a chemotherapy pump on her hip to class or when she did her student teaching.

To remain covered under her mother's health insurance, Morse had to either maintain a full course load or pay about $550 a month. She chose the former, even though her doctors urged her to cut back.

"I'm scared for my mom and dad," she wrote in her journal in December 2003, just after she was diagnosed. "I want to make this easier on them."

By the time she died in November at 22, Morse had become a reluctant celebrity, lending her name to a proposed New Hampshire state law aimed at sparing others the tough decision she faced.

"Michelle's Law" would require health insurance companies that cover college students under their parents' plans to continue the coverage if a student takes a medical leave of absence.

Morse's mother, AnnMarie, has become the driving force behind the legislation. "I have a lot of energy," AnnMarie Morse said in a recent interview. "I knew the odds were against us ... but I knew I had to do something else."

A state House committee unanimously recommended the bill in November, and the House will vote on it today.

Other states have taken a broader approach by allowing young adults to remain on their parents' plans longer, regardless of whether they are in college.

Those laws are aimed at addressing the nation's fastest-growing uninsured population: people ages 18 to 24, said Laura Tobler, a health policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thirty percent of Americans in that age group had no health insurance in 2003, according to a report issued in December by the National Center for Health Statistics. Many young people work only part time or have jobs that do not offer coverage.

Children typically lose healthcare coverage under their parents' plans when they turn 19, though full-time students often are given an exception. But in the last year, at least 12 states have considered or enacted laws broadening coverage of college-age dependents, Tobler said.

One such law, which would have required insurers in California to continue coverage of dependent children until age 26, was vetoed in October by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The governor said the bill would hurt employers already struggling to afford the rising costs of healthcare and could lead to higher premiums. He also said the bill might have actually reduced the number of young adults with coverage if it prompted employers to stop offering family plans.

Some other states have welcomed the idea.

Colorado residents as old as 25 can now be covered under their parents' plans as long as they are unmarried, financially dependent on their parents or living with them.

New York, which already has a law like the one proposed in New Hampshire, is considering raising the maximum age for dependents to 25 from 23. A New Jersey bill would allow dependents as old as 30 to remain on their parents' plans, although companies could charge more for such coverage.

Such laws will not solve the larger problem but are a good stopgap measure, said Trudy Lieberman, director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

"For people who are betwixt and between jobs and school, until we have a more inclusive system, this is an OK thing to do," she said.

The insurance industry generally hasn't opposed such changes because, aside from expensive cases like Morse's, carriers are getting paid higher family-plan premiums to cover the healthiest segment of the population, said New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine, an insurance agent who sponsored the New Hampshire bill.

"Demographically, this is a profitable part of their business," he said.

Realizing that the nature of higher education has changed, many insurers are allowing college students to remain on their parents' plans longer, said Larry Akey, a spokesman at America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group. Students are taking longer to complete their college educations and are increasingly pursuing advanced degrees.

But he said the insurance industry had sought to limit the definition of dependents to students or those who were financially dependent on their parents, because opening the definition too widely would result in increased premiums.

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