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SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2007
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Zach Zirbel, 23, has been uninsured for two years while working jobs in grocery stores, construction and landscaping. “I guess I’m just trying my luck right now,” he said. His current job at a small business doesn’t offer group health care, but he’s OK with that.
Daily illustration by Jonathan Palmer
Zach Zirbel, 23, has been uninsured for two years while working jobs in grocery stores, construction and landscaping. “I guess I’m just trying my luck right now,” he said. His current job at a small business doesn’t offer group health care, but he’s OK with that.

Young & uninsured
More and more are taking their chances without health care and falling through the coverage cracks

By Danielle Komis Palmer
dpalmer@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

When 27-year-old Scott Sandlin of Decatur was dropped from his parents’ insurance plan a few years ago, he was forced to drop something, too.

Skateboarding, once a favorite pastime for Sandlin, suddenly seemed like too much of a liability. But Sandlin knows that such sacrifices are not unique to him.

“I’ve got plenty of friends who don’t have health insurance,” he said. “Everybody from college students to people who work full-time jobs ... It’s become less uncommon every year.”

A recently released report from the U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 8 million young adults nationwide in the 18-to-24 age range were uninsured in 2006, making up 30 percent of the age group.

A widely cited report released last year by private foundation The Commonwealth Fund first pointed the public eye at the problem when it cited young adults in the 19-to-29 age range not only as the largest, but also the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s population lacking insurance.

Sandlin, like many other local young adults, lives with the fear that an injury (whether he’s playing soccer or driving his car) could send him into serious debt. At a time when many young people switch jobs often, work at small businesses or other jobs that don’t provide insurance, and enter the “real world” later and later, it’s become increasingly common for them to live without that important card in their wallet.

Add to those factors a lack of education about health insurance and a common “it’s-not-going-to happen-to-me” attitude among young people, and it suddenly becomes clear how the situation has compounded.

Zach Zirbel of Athens has been uninsured for two years while working jobs in grocery stores, construction and landscaping. But the 23-year-old said he doesn’t worry about his lack of coverage.

“I guess I’m just trying my luck right now,” he said.

So, like many parents of the uninsured, his parents bear the brunt of the worry. Missy Zirbel, Zach’s mother, said she and her husband know that if Zach gets into an accident or needs to see the doctor, they’re going to be the ones to pay for it out of their pocket.

“I’m always saying, ‘Go out and get a good job with benefits,’ ” she said. “It’s so important. But sometimes you don’t always want to listen to your parents.”

Especially when your situation doesn’t seem unusual.

“I don’t know hardly anyone my age who has health insurance,” Zach said. “Maybe some people in college full time have it, but all the average Joes don’t have it.”

Good job, no insurance

Zach could get health insurance if he becomes a full-time student at Calhoun Community College next year, though he hasn’t decided if he will go. He loves his new job as a manager at Computer Zone, a small business in Decatur, and is not sure he wants to give it up. While the small business can’t provide health insurance, he’s OK with that.

Sandlin, who is also a manager for a small business in Decatur, feels the same way. While he could pursue a job that provides health insurance, Sandlin loves what he does and doesn’t want to give it up just because his workplace doesn’t provide group health insurance.

“Why sacrifice a life I enjoy and a life that makes me happy for something like that?” he said.

Doctors’ visits

While it’s great to work at a job you love, that happiness is squashed a bit when you’re finally forced to go the doctor.

When Zach needs to go, his parents often help cover the cost. Without insurance, doctors’ visits and a prescription often hit the pocketbook hard — often in the range of $100 to $200.

“It’s hard with a family of five,” Missy Zirbel said. “But you can’t let your child stay sick. Zach’s a good kid and he works hard, but it’s one of those things.”

The family hasn’t looked into short-term insurance for Zach because they assumed it would be too expensive, she said.

Sandlin, too, has struggled to pay for doctors’ visits — so he usually tries to avoid them altogether.

When he recently fell and injured his knee, he limped on his extremely swollen knee for two weeks.

“I didn’t go to a doctor because it was like, ‘Well, let’s wait and see,’ ” he said.

The fact that his waiting could have further damaged his knee makes him angry at a government he believes has left many Americans behind.

“If I’m guaranteed life by the fundamental document of our government, why am I in no way guaranteed the ability to preserve that life?” he asked.

“It doesn’t make sense.”

What’s being done to help the uninsured?

Since 2003, 16 states have enacted legislation requiring insurance companies to provide health insurance coverage to dependent young adults on their parents’ health plans beyond age 18 or 19, according to a report released earlier this month from private foundation The Commonwealth Fund.

But Alabama, along with most other states in the South, has not. One in five Alabamians between 19 and 24 are uninsured, according to healthinsurance.alabama.gov.

On a federal level, a State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill passed in the House would benefit young adults by letting states extend coverage past 19. The age for young adults covered under Medicaid, however, has not been extended.

Chad Nichols, project manager of the health committee of the Governor’s Black Belt Action Commission, said a study performed by the BBAC and the Alabama Department of Public Health found that a lack of schooling was a contributing factor for why some young adults were uninsured.

“We found that education and a lack of information was a major issue not just in the Black Belt but really across the board,” he said.

Thus, the Black Belt Action Committee and the Alabama Department of Public Health created healthinsurance.alabama.gov, an educational Web Site for young adults. The commission will soon start promoting the Web site more heavily, Nichols said.

As for any legislative changes in the state concerning young adults and health insurance, the governor’s recently created Rural Alabama Action Commission will likely soon study that issue, Nichols said. Nichols is also assistant director of the RAAC.

“We’re just now getting that kicked off,” he said. “Health insurance will be an issue we’ll look at but nothing is set in stone at this point.”

Danielle Komis Palmer

On the Net

  • Alabama site educating young people on health insurance options: healthinsurance.alabama.gov

  • National Conference of State Legislatures site shows recent legislation concerning young adults and health insurance by state: www.ncsl.org/programs/health/dependentstatus.htm

  • Informational guide for young adults on health insurance, created by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners: www.insureuonline.org

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