Young people, bankruptcy, and affordable health care

Imagine you are hit in a car accident. In the blink of an eye, you fly in and out of surgery, spend days in intensive care units and hospital rooms, get put through one diagnostic test after another. Even if you recover to full strength, the story is just beginning. If you’re uninsured, like 25% of young adults currently are, the medical trauma goes hand in hand with a financial one – you get hit with an enormous medical bill, one which you have little hope of repaying.

In 2013, it is expected that 1.7 million people will have filed for bankruptcy because of debt from their medical bills. This isn’t new – medical debt is the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in America and has been for many years. Many young people have been hounded by debt collection agencies after injuries seemingly as simple as a broken ankle quickly accumulate an overwhelming amount of medical fees. Lost in the long, hard-fought battles and endless political posturing over health reform are these sad realities. More than any other motivation, giving more people access to a health care market that excluded 50 million Americans propelled the Affordable Care Act. Many people have strong opinions about health reform. But, fundamentally, one clear principle drove the passage of that law: access to good healthcare is a basic human right, not just a privilege for the rich or lucky.

Now, nearly six years later, the health insurance marketplaces at the heart of the ACA have been set up all across the country. The regular abuses of the health insurance companies have been checked. They can no longer discriminate against us for having “pre-existing health conditions.” They must provide a basic set of services to all of their customers. They can no longer drop patients they deem too expensive. Yet, these guarantees from the insurance companies came with responsibilities for all of us. The security of knowing that you will always have access to needed healthcare came with the responsibility to purchase healthcare coverage for yourself. The freedom of knowing you will not be bankrupt from medical bills came with the responsibility to join the healthcare system before you get sick.

February 15th was National Youth Enrollment Day. We now have the opportunity, as individuals, to buy good health care coverage at rates that were once only available to large corporations. We can now get regular check-ups and preventative health services, so that we get healthy and stay healthy before a sudden, traumatic emergency forces our hand.

With health reform, America has started an experiment to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world. Countries like England, Germany, and Japan have had lower healthcare costs and better health outcomes for decades. As more and more Americans, particularly those of us who are young, join the health insurance marketplace, the US has the opportunity to help ALL of its citizens secure better health at lower costs to our society.

Anyone with a serious illness knows one thing – without good health, we are not free to pursue the life we want to live. Now is the time to sign up, get covered, and live free from the worry of sickness and medical debt.

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A native of Detroit, Jerin Philip graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health with a concentration in Health Policy. He writes about health economics and is an advocate for underserved communities in Michigan who face significant health disparities.

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