Where Are the Young Voices on Health Care?

As Congress returns to Capitol Hill, back from a recess of
contentious town halls on health care reform, one new voice has the
potential to break through the seemingly endless deadlock: the voice of
young Americans.

Just Thursday, there were more than 880,000
Facebook status updates posted with the meme of a demand for health
care reform, generated organically and spread virally from young people
and other Facebook users across the country.

Some are
regarding this as the first symbolic demonstration of young people's
engagement in the debate despite the common, and categorically false,
notion that young people "don't care about health care reform."

Young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 represent nearly a third of
the entire uninsured population, and two-thirds of those uninsured
young people reported going without necessary medical care because of
costs in 2007, according to research for the Commonwealth Fund.

More than half of all young adults have low incomes (below 200 percent
of the federal poverty level, $21,660 for a single person in 2009), and
low-income young adults are more than 2.5 times as likely to be
uninsured as higher-income young adults, according to the Urban

And contrary to popular belief that young people
see themselves as invincible college students who choose to remain
uninsured, 56 percent of uninsured young adults between the ages of 19
and 29 are full-time workers who are half as likely to be covered by
their employer as older workers.

Millennials regarded health care reform as one of their top concerns
during the 2008 election campaign, according to the Rock the Vote Poll
of 18- to 29-year-olds, conducted in February 2008 by Lake Research

Whether it is the 25-year-old freelancer with a
pre-existing condition who can't purchase insurance in the individual
market, the 20-year-old line cook who doesn't receive insurance through
her job or the 28-year-old bank employee who is insured but is worried
about the rising costs of premiums, young Americans experience the
deficiencies of our health care system on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, despite a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey
showing that 60 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 support Obama's
reform plan, the voice of young Americans has been strikingly absent
from the public, televised national debate. And that silence is a
dangerous state of affairs for the larger dialogue around reform.

Young Americans have the most at stake and the longest to live with the
result, and they are often the primary voice of a moral imperative (the
idea that health care reform is not only economically necessary but the
just and fair thing to do). Without their voices, the health care
reform debate will continue to be stalled and hemmed in by older
Americans who are in a better economic position than young people and
who are afraid to change the status quo, despite all signs that it is
rapidly failing.

Young people were such a vital force during the
election, not simply because of their own voting turnout but because of
their ability to reach out to their elders and persuade them. And what
could be more needed now?

But if health care reform matters so
much to young people and their voice is so crucial in the debate, why
the silence? Why does it appear as if young people aren't interested in
the debate that will inform so much of their future?

Well, if we
are gauging America's overall interest in the debate by the
aforementioned displays of partisan yelling, screaming and death
panel-ing at some town halls, no wonder we think young people don't
care. Those sideshows were a clear turnoff to a population that voted
overwhelming for less partisanship and "drama" in its politics.

Or perhaps it is because this administration did little in the early
stages of the debate to engage and activate a "fired-up and ready to
go" base of young people that saw health care reform as a top concern
at the polls. Obama rarely highlights the fact that reform would
provide protections against price differentials that often result in
discrimination based on age and gender.

Or what about the fact
that the president's reform proposal would mean that a young person can
be covered up until the age of 26 by a parent's plan, rather than the
current limit of 19 for those who don't attend college? This is what
young people should have been told.

But it isn't too late.

As 2008 showed, young people, like all other constituencies, speak when
spoken to. As the debate slogs into what is sure to be the most
consequential stage of the battle, President Obama has a prime opportunity to speak directly to those who should have been the base of this issue all along.

It is beyond time for the White House, and other organizers working to
support reform, to hit college campuses and other community centers
where young people can be found, both on- and offline, and empower them
to make their voices heard.

In the meantime, young people are
doing it themselves. Students across the country are beginning to plan
their own town hall events and forums, designing health care T-shirts
and sending in photo petitions to their elected officials. They are
demanding real reform and trying to get the health care debate back on
track. In order to succeed, the fight for bold health care reform needs
the enthusiasm, support and perspective of young people. And time is
running out.

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