WASHINGTON — President Obama's healthcare law helped as many as 6.6 million young adults stay on or get on their parents' health plans in the first year and a half after the law was signed, a new survey indicates.
That number, found in the survey by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, is far higher than earlier estimates. And at a time when public wariness about the Affordable Care Act remains high, it underscores the popularity of a provision that requires insurers to allow parents to enroll their children up to age 26 on their own plans.
Earlier surveys by the federal government found that the number of people ages 19 to 25 without insurance declined after the law was signed, reversing years of erosion in health coverage for young adults.
But, although the government research indicated that 2.5 million more young adults had health insurance in 2011 than in 2010, it was unclear how many people were benefiting from the law.
The Affordable Care Act is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision is expected by the end of June. If the court strikes down the entire federal healthcare law, the requirement that young adults be allowed to sign on to their parents' plans would die. Some insurers have indicated that they might embrace the provision voluntarily, citing its popularity.
In California, state law provides that this provision must remain in effect, regardless of the court's ruling.
Not all of the estimated 6.6 million young adults who joined or stayed on their parents' plans would have otherwise been uninsured, according to officials at the Commonwealth Fund, which is a leading source of healthcare research. At least some probably moved to their parents' plans from other health insurance plans because the family plans were less costly or more comprehensive.
But, Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis said, the survey was a hopeful indicator at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to get needed healthcare. "The new report … shows that implementation of the law has already begun to make a difference for young adults, their families and other Americans," she said.
The survey of more than 1,800 young adults nationwide measured how young people got insurance between November 2010 and November 2011.
The expansion in coverage for young adults has been a rare bright spot for the Obama administration and other backers of the healthcare law who have been laboring since 2010 to highlight the benefits of the law, most of which will not be evident for years. Under the law, all Americans will be guaranteed access to health coverage for the first time starting in 2014.
Allowing young adults, most of whom are healthy, to remain on their parents' health plans is not as expensive as expanding coverage to populations with higher medical costs, although independent analyses estimate the expansion could boost premiums 1% to 2%.
Congressional Republicans are working to dismantle the law, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has promised to repeal it if elected in November.
House Republicans continued their campaign Thursday, voting to scrap a 2.3% tax on medical devices sold in America that was included in the law to help raise money to provide health coverage to an estimated 32 million people. The largely symbolic measure, cheered by business groups, is not expected to succeed in the Democratic Senate.
House Republicans also voted to rescind new restrictions on the use of tax-free health accounts; these were also included in the new healthcare law. So far, however, GOP lawmakers have not advanced any alternatives to the law.
The Commonwealth Fund survey suggests that simply repealing the law would have a substantial effect on young people, many of whom are still struggling to pay their medical bills and to get health insurance.
Nearly 2 in 5 young adults ages 19 to 29 reported a gap in health insurance in 2011, according to the survey. And 41% delayed getting needed medical care.
Millions of young adults are also struggling with debt they incurred to get medical care, with one-fifth reporting they are having to pay off medical bills over time.
That burden is falling most heavily on young people without insurance, with more than one-quarter reporting they had been contacted by a collection agency over unpaid medical bills.
Those without insurance are also disproportionately low income, with 70% of young people who make less than $29,726 a year — 133% of the federal poverty level — reporting that they had lacked insurance at some point in the previous year.
These Americans are also the least likely to join a parent's health plan. While 69% of young adults in families making more than four times the poverty level stayed on or joined their parents' health plans, just 17% from families making less than 133% of the poverty line did so, the survey found.
Staff writers Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau and Chad Terhune in Los Angeles contributed to this report.