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Twenty-something, out of work, and losing sleep worrying about health insurance

How hard is it to find affordable health coverage if you're young and – thanks to a pandemic – unemployed? We talked with one 'young invincible' about her options.

Out of work and about to age off of her mom's health insurance, New York actor Carolyn Kettig says she's been losing sleep over her prospects of finding affordable health insurance. | Photo by Dion Lamar Mills

It’s been a widely held conclusion in the health insurance industry and among health policy types that one of our biggest hurdles lies with the challenge of getting coverage for “young invincibles” – Americans old enough to vote but under 30. That label itself is tied to a widely held perception that – because of their youth – “twenty-somethings” believe they’re healthy enough that they simply won’t need all of the bells and whistles of comprehensive health insurance (any time soon, at least).

As an agent and an avid observer of health insurance trends, I know it’s not that simple: young adults, in many cases, are keenly aware of their need for comprehensive coverage. But – despite various federal and state efforts to make coverage more affordable and accessible (including provisions of the American Rescue Plan) – there are definitely barriers making it difficult for young adults to enter the individual health insurance market.

Last week, I spoke with Carolyn Kettig, a young woman who’s determined to get coverage but facing barriers that many young Americans face. Carolyn Kettig is a professional actor in New York, and has thus far maintained health coverage under her mother’s policy. But that will end this summer, when Carolyn turns 26. She shares her story with me here, and I’ve added my own commentary wherever it might help readers in similar situations understand their coverage options.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that because Carolyn lives in New York, she has access to a Basic Health Program. New York and Minnesota are the only states that offer these programs, and they’re an excellent coverage option for people who are eligible to enroll. But if you’re not in New York or Minnesota, you’ve still got plenty of options.

That’s particularly true now that the American Rescue Plan has been enacted, making premium subsidies larger and more widely available. For many young people, the American Rescue Plan makes robust coverage much more affordable than it used to be. (Previously, it was common for young people to feel like their only truly affordable health coverage option was a plan with a deductible that may have felt impossibly high).

Louise: What’s your current insurance situation and how is it changing this year? What are your options for coverage?

Carolyn: I’m lucky enough to currently be covered by my mother’s health insurance. She has a very generous insurance plan and I’ve been privileged to, thus far, be fully covered. Unfortunately, because I’m turning 26, I’ll be losing coverage this spring.

As a professional actor, my early twenties were filled with countless side jobs that supported me as I sought acting work in New York City. None of these jobs ever came with healthcare benefits, which at the time was okay as I was covered by my mother’s plan. Three years ago, when I landed my first big theater job, I had the opportunity to join the actor’s union, which among many other wonderful things, provides working actors with comprehensive, affordable health insurance.

The only catch, and it’s a fairly large one, is that an actor must work a certain number of weeks in order to qualify. Even without a pandemic, finding steady work in the theater is difficult. Factor in a pandemic that shutters theaters for over a year and causes the union to hemorrhage money … needless to say, healthcare coverage in my industry has become a near impossibility.

I’m hopeful that live entertainment will return in a vaccinated world, but until then, I’m doing my best to make enough money to pay my bills. I’m grateful to be employed part-time as a program director for a teen program. My job has kept me afloat during this devastating time, but, unfortunately, does not come with healthcare benefits. I make very little money and live paycheck to paycheck, which leaves me relatively few options when it comes to insurance. I will most likely go with New York State’s Essential Plan, which is the best option for low-income people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Louise: The Essential Plan is New York’s Basic Health Program (BHP), which is available to people earning up to 200% of the poverty level. (For a single person in 2021, that amounts to $25,760.) The Affordable Care Act allowed for the creation of BHPs, but New York and Minnesota are the only states that have opted to establish them.

The Essential Plan provides robust health coverage with no monthly premium, and it has much lower cost-sharing than we typically see in the individual/family health insurance market. The Essential Plan is also being enhanced as of June 2021. Previously, some enrollees had to pay $20/month, and there was an extra premium for dental and vision coverage; dental and vision are now included at no cost.

Louise: How much is the need for coverage weighing on you and other people your age? 

Carolyn: I’ve lost sleep over this! It weighs on me heavily. Having grown up in New York, I have a long history with some of my doctors, most of whom will not accept my new insurance plan. This means that I will either be forced to find new doctors or pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for routine check-ups.

I’m also aware that, even with insurance coverage, an unexpected hospital stay could cost me thousands of dollars. It makes me enraged to know that, in an emergency situation, I would avoid going to the hospital because of the cost.

Louise: The Essential Plan provides much more robust coverage than people may be used to seeing elsewhere. There is no deductible, emergency room visits cost $75, and inpatient hospital stays are only $150 per admission – and these fees are waived altogether for enrollees with income up to 150% of the poverty level, or a little more than $19,000 for a single person. This is better coverage than most people have even with higher-end employer-sponsored plans.

Carolyn: I know that I’m not alone in this. Especially since my generation is now living through a global health crisis, I think my peers are more aware than ever before of how broken our healthcare system really is. Moreover, as a white, cisgendered woman from a middle-class background, I’m cognizant of the privilege my identities afford me and deeply disturbed by the ways in which our healthcare system disregards and harms BIPOC, low-income families, LGBTQIA+ youth, and undocumented workers (many of whom are essential workers and yet have little access to healthcare coverage) among many others. Alongside the climate crisis and the fight for racial equality, I believe that healthcare reform will dominate the American political landscape for the next few decades.

Louise: I agree that our healthcare system is in need of extensive reform. The American Rescue Plan, enacted just last month, is the first major change we’ve seen since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law 11 years ago. It includes some substantial improvements designed to make health coverage more affordable and accessible.

But these improvements are temporary unless Congress takes additional action to make them permanent. And there are other issues, such as the ACA’s family glitch, and the Medicaid coverage gap that exists in the dozen states that have refused to expand Medicaid, that haven’t yet been fixed. Fortunately, lawmakers in Congress are continuing to push forward on these issues, and voters can reach out to their elected officials to express their opinions.

Louise: What do you see as challenges in this situation?

Carolyn: I’ve mentioned many challenges already, but I think chief among them is simply how confusing and difficult it is to make informed choices. Reading about insurance options requires learning an entirely new language and navigating nearly impenetrable websites.

Louise: For folks who are confused by the terminology and concepts that go along with health insurance, our glossary is a great resource. We’ve incorporated plenty of details, since that’s where the nuances always are. And we’ve focused on explaining things using plain language that’s easy to understand.

Help from the American Rescue Plan

Louise: Are you aware of the changes that the American Rescue Plan has made? Do you think it will make it easier for you to access coverage?

Carolyn: I’ve read a bit about the changes made by the American Rescue Plan and am thrilled that this administration is attempting to expand access to healthcare (even though I’d love to see more substantial reform). I don’t think that I will be impacted directly by the bill because I already live in a state that offers an affordable plan for people in my income bracket.

Louise: If you lived in another state, the American Rescue Plan would make your coverage more affordable. But you’re correct: Assuming your 2021 income doesn’t exceed 200% of the poverty level (about $25,760), you’ll be eligible for either The Essential Plan or Medicaid in New York, both of which are already robust coverage with no monthly premiums.

But for others in a similar situation who live elsewhere, the American Rescue Plan implements a variety of improvements that make it easier for young people to transition to their own coverage. Among other provisions, the American Rescue Plan:

Louise: What do you expect to happen with your coverage this summer? Do you have a good idea of the plan you’ll be on after you transition away from your mom’s coverage, or is it still up in the air?

Carolyn: Fortunately, through The Actors Fund, I have access to a professional who will guide me through the process of finding a plan, although I’m fairly certain I will end up on the Essential Plan.

I’ve been told to begin the process a couple months before I lose coverage, so that’s coming up very soon! I also have many friends who are in a similar situation or have already gone through the process, so I expect I’ll be texting them a whole lot. Even though I’m anxious about navigating the system on my own for the first time, I feel well supported as I approach this transition.

Louise: As you’re going through this insurance transition, what do you feel are the most important things for other people your age to keep in mind?

Carolyn: I think it’s important to do your research, seek out trusted professionals or peers to guide you, and ask a lot of questions. The system is designed to be confusing and ultimately benefit insurance companies, so I believe the more questions you ask, the better positioned you’ll be to advocate for yourself. Get acquainted with the vocabulary and make sure you know the basic terms (i.e. premium, deductible, out of pocket maximum, in-network, enrollment period). And if you’re uninsured for a period of time, know that you can find sliding scale clinics, sliding scale hospital services, and assistance paying for prescription drugs. Your health, both physical and mental, is of utmost importance!

Louise: The advice to seek out assistance and ask lots of questions is spot-on. There are no silly questions, and any question you might have about health insurance is certainly shared by plenty of other people.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, there has never been a better time to be transitioning to your own health insurance policy. And even if you’re not experiencing a qualifying event (such as aging off of a parent’s health insurance policy), there’s a COVID-related enrollment window that runs through August 15 in most states, giving people an opportunity to enroll and take advantage of the newly enhanced premium subsidies.

And in every community, there are navigators, enrollment counselors, and health insurance brokers who can help you pick a plan and answer any questions you might have. We also have an extensive collection of FAQs, including several that are specific to young adults.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

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