Patrick O'Mahen: A stake in health care reform

BY PATRICK O'MAHEN

Published November 22, 2009

I am about to lose my health insurance and face some tough choices. It looks like I’m going to be unemployed next semester. The people who run things at the Department of Political Science have informed me that they won’t need my services as a GSI. Applications to other departments aren’t going well, either. And without a University job, I will lose my University-sponsored health insurance. Seniors, you’d better listen up – many of you will lose your health coverage the day you graduate, and will face some difficult decisions of your own.

According to some politicians, like Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), that isn’t a problem. While railing against the health care reform bill that passed in the House of Representatives on Nov. 7, he said 10 to 15 million young Americans under 30 freely choose to forgo health insurance because they “don’t want to pay the premiums.”

I’m only 30 years old, I’m fairly healthy, I get 30 minutes of daily exercise, I eat reasonably well and I even floss regularly. Going without health insurance seems like it isn’t a big deal. In fact, it might even be a smart choice, so long as I don’t get made into a hood ornament by a drunk driver while I’m walking home from the library late at night. But this risk of a catastrophic accident means I should have some form of coverage, both for my own sake and so that I don’t stick taxpayers with my emergency room bill.

Although I’m quite healthy now, I suffer from Dysthymic Disorder, which is essentially a long-term form of low-grade depression. To treat it, I check in with a therapist once every two months. With my current health insurance plan, I pay a $15 co-pay for the visit, and the company pays the balance – more than $100. Without insurance, I can’t afford to see my counselor, let alone buy the antidepressant I use to supplement therapy.

So I have three “choices.” The first one is to stop taking antidepressants and seeing my therapist. That’s a foolish idea, especially since I had trouble functioning before I sought help several years ago.

My second choice is to try to buy insurance on the open market. But because I’m an individual, I inherently create more risk for an insurance company than I would as part of a large group buying insurance, so I’ll have to pay several hundred dollars more a month for a similar policy. Worse, my depression qualifies as a pre-existing condition, so I’ll pay more still – if I can get any company to insure me at all.

My best current choice is to continue to buy into the GradCare plan for six months under the Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986, commonly known as COBRA. I pay full price plus five percent of the plan’s monthly premium, which is about $200 a month. That’s much cheaper than buying insurance as an individual, but still difficult for me to pay. I barely earned $20,000 last year when I had a job. If I’m paying COBRA, I probably won’t have a job, certainly not one as well-paying as a GSI position. That means cutting the other parts of my budget even further – and choosing between paying for groceries and rent won’t be much fun.

What does this have to do with you undergrads? The vast majority of you are going to lose your parents’ health insurance coverage the day after you graduate. If you don’t have a job lined up with insurance benefits, you’ll face a menu of the two most unpalatable choices I outlined above: going without insurance or paying an extraordinary amount on the individual market.

Both the House and Senate versions of health care reform would solve these problems instantly by mandating insurance companies to extend coverage of children to age 26. They would help me by subsidizing my premiums and allowing me to purchase insurance at a group rate on a health insurance exchange, preferably with a public option that would compete with private companies and drive down rates.

The point is that health reform isn’t some arcane debate in far-off Washington. It has dire implications for each of our personal lives. For me, those implications likely start on Jan. 1. For you seniors, they arrive as soon as you graduate. If health reform fails, I strongly suggest looking both ways when crossing Main St. after you get your diploma at Michigan Stadium.

Patrick O'Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.