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Is the Affordable Care Act Actually Affordable? For Millennials, Maybe Not

Young people are financially stretched as it is—will they be able to help chip in to the new health system?

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When the healthcare reform debate surfaced in 2008, Melissa Cornelius hoped single-payer healthcare would be seriously considered. But after following the deliberations and finding that the reformers “were just trying to work within a broken system,” Cornelius said she grew doubtful about the future legislation. Then, in 2011, a year after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Cornelius, 31, lost her health insurance coverage.

An experienced knitter, Cornelius works 32 hours a week at a small yarn store in San Francisco, where her boss can’t afford to pay for her health insurance. Thus in the fall, she is going back to school in hopes of obtaining a job that comes with more hours and benefits. Meanwhile, Cornelius will have to pay a penalty for not purchasing healthcare through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

“It just doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to afford Obamacare,” says Cornelius, who makes $20,000 a year and owes more than $36,000 in student loans for her three years at the University of Berkeley.

More muck for millenials

With high unemployment, the increasing cost of tuition and expensive rent costs in cities, Cornelius’ case is quite common for many young adults ages 18 to 34 in the United States. It’s necessary, however, for this age group to purchase health insurance through the ACA marketplace in order to defray costs for others in the risk pool. Younger, healthier people help keep premiums low, especially for those older and sicker, because they ultimately need less care and therefore use fewer funds. Of the 7 million people the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be enrolled by March, the Obama administration hopes about 2.5 million are young adults.

But as the October enrollment date nears, the administration may see fewer young adults sign up than it hoped.

“I imagine young adults mostly won’t like it,” said Benjamin Day, the director of organizing for Healthcare Now!, a grassroots organization advocating for a single-payer healthcare system in the United States. “And not because they don’t want insurance or they need insurance … I think they are going to see it as a burden because it is just so expensive.”

Conservatives have been increasingly using this factor to generate disdain for Obamacare among young people. The conservative Heritage Foundation targeted young people in a Buzzfeed post — gifs and all — titled, “That One Time I Was Really, Really Excited About Obamacare.” Meanwhile, liberals are hoping to enlighten millennials and push them to purchase healthcare. After all, the Commonwealth Fund’s recent report found only 27 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds were aware of the marketplaces. But this push is often made without an analysis of young people’s burdens. One article by Brian Beutler on Salon even argued that young adults should purchase healthcare to disprove their selfish stereotype and help out the country. He wrote: “There’s a more selfless reason they should enroll — one they might not be aware of, but that will nevertheless put the proposition that millennials are shiftless, selfish people to the test: The system needs their participation, in order for it to succeed.”

But it’s perplexing to imply that young adults who don’t buy into the marketplace are selfish when they don't have the money to do so — mainly because of their country’s failure to address their needs. Only 5 percent of working adults ages 19 to 29 said they didn’t join their employer’s healthcare policy because they believed they didn’t need it, while 22 percent said the coverage was too expensive. (The rest of those surveyed already had health insurance through a parent or spouse.)