Why 20-somethings should get health insurance

We're young but not invincible, as I've learned

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I’m a 27-year-old guy who has always been pretty healthy. When I left my job to go back to school in 2010, I lost reliable access to health care. To tell you the truth, this had never been a huge deal for me. Like most guys in their early 20s, I was more concerned with school work and seeing my friends. I never needed to go to the doctor much when I’d been working in retail management, so it didn’t seem like much of a problem that, as a 23-year-old working student, I couldn’t afford to see one.

I didn’t see a doctor for almost four years. Not that this bothered me much. I was young, I was healthy, I was just an average guy. I didn’t think much about what would happen if I got into an accident or suddenly became ill.

Earlier this winter I started having trouble seeing street signs from a distance, and the fact that I hadn’t been to a doctor in four years started weighing on me. So I went to healthcare.gov to see if I could get health insurance.

The process was surprisingly easy. I created an account, entered information about my age, where I live and my income, and scrolled through options. Thirty-nine plans were available to someone like me living in Allegheny County. Less than 25 minutes later, I had signed up for a Silver Plan from Highmark that was going to cost me only $25.19 per month — after a monthly tax credit of $111. The payment was less than I spend on coffee in a month.

When my insurance card from Highmark arrived, I started making doctors’ appointments. I saw a primary care physician for the first time since I was 19 — and was lucky to get a clean bill of health.

I was less lucky at the eye doctor’s office. As I suspected, I needed glasses, but, after examining me, the doctor said I also might be suffering from macular degeneration — a condition that eventually could lead to blindness. Soon I was headed for a pricey Optical Coherence Tomography exam (a sort of MRI for the eye) and was able to get a final diagnosis.

I got lucky. It turned out to be scar tissue, and the glasses were all I needed. But I got a look at what kind of medical and financial disasters might befall me without health insurance.

I work at a coffee shop and am continuing my education, so I don’t make a lot of money. Without the Affordable Care Act, there was no way I could have afforded the doctor visits and expensive tests necessary to figure out my eye problems. Without it, I probably would have just put up with deteriorating vision for who knows how long — at the risk of long-term damage and huge medical bills down the road.

In the countdown to the Affordable Care Act open enrollment deadline, March 31, there has been a lot of talk about the need for young, healthy men like me to enroll in market exchange health plans. The Obama administration and the insurance industry are counting on a certain number of young, healthy people to sign up in order to offset the higher health-care costs associated with the older — and presumably sicker — people who enroll.

This concern entirely misses the point. The reason young adults should sign up for health insurance is because, as I learned, young people develop health problems or have accidents just like older people. For me, enrolling in a marketplace plan allowed me to start taking the steps to get and stay healthy. For others, it might mean being able to get life-saving treatments or procedures without facing financial ruin.

If you’re like me — or like I was — a young adult who is more worried about school and social life than health care, I urge you to go to healthcare.gov to see what your options are. Signing up is easy and subsidies are available for single people making less than $45,960 a year or families of four making up to $94,200 a year.

If you are a parent or a loved one of a young person who doesn’t have health insurance, tell them my story and urge them to sign up. Research by the nonprofit group Enroll America shows that young, uninsured men listen to their moms and spouses above everyone else about the importance of getting health insurance. The March 31 deadline is coming up soon.

Michael Maher is an insured student/​coffee-shop worker living in Dormont.

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