Young, Uninsured, and Living Carefully

Young, Uninsured, and Living Carefully

We may be young, but we don’t have the luxury of feeling invincible. When one ambulance ride, hospital visit, or even prescription could mean financial ruin, the young and uninsured have to live carefully. Our situation is precarious, and we know it: we’re part of the minority who wait for the walk sign before crossing the street; we cook our eggs thoroughly—not that we’ve known anyone with salmonella, but we don’t want to risk it. And when it comes time for yearly checkups, you can bet that if we’re still breathing, not bleeding, and without severe pain, we won’t go. Forget dental checkups and eye exams: instead, we brush, floss, and squint. If we can read the street signs through an old pair of glasses, that’s good enough for now.

Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are more likely to be uninsured than any other group in the industrialized world. Some think uninsured young people just have misplaced priorities—that instead of investing in our health, we’d prefer to spend money on clothes, shoes, computers, DVDs. The simple fact is that most of us do not have six thousand spare dollars, the average price of a year of coverage. We’re working jobs that barely pay a living wage. Insurance is not an option.

And yet, many of us are graduates of prestigious universities. We have good grades, excellent résumés, drive, and ambition—and we cannot find jobs that offer benefits. We seriously consider trading meaningful work for life as a full-time Starbucks barista—hoping to qualify for the insurance such corporations partially subsidize. (Only, of course, after six months of uninsured work.) Among my classmates who graduated from college this year, I know of only three who have jobs with health insurance—and even then, they have to pay significant employee contributions.

We’re not naïve enough to think nothing will go wrong—it does, and it will. In one week, my two housemates and I had cases of tonsillitis, strep throat, and pink eye—all maladies that required medical attention. Even with partial insurance, we each ended up spending several hundred dollars.

So we take our vitamins and hope for the best. We know that if we get sick, we’ll miss work days and lose pay. The irony of employment-based insurance is that, even for those who have it, getting sick for an extended period of time may mean simultaneously losing one’s job, the insurance that went with it, and income to pay for medical treatment. This is one reason that every thirty seconds, an American files for bankruptcy in the wake of medical expenses. In fact, half of all U.S. bankruptcies are the result of medical expenses—a statistic unimaginable in a country with universal health care.

WHAT OF THOSE without prestigious degrees and families who can provide assistance? What about those who must support children, who work multiple jobs, and who still can barely get by? What happens wh...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels