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Millennials can't afford health insurance, adopt risky alternatives

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When Paul Yeager injured his neck and back in a car accident earlier this year, he didn't go to an emergency room or see a chiropractor. The financially strapped 30-year-old had just completed his master's degree, and he and his wife had recently had a baby. The pain was bearable, and the cost of treatment would have been too high.

Yeager's story isn't uncommon among millennials.

One in 5 adults ages 18 to 36 said they cannot afford routine health-care expenses, according to a recent Harris Poll. Many of those millennials are uninsured because of the cost. An additional 26 percent said they can afford routine health-care costs, but with difficulty.

The Harris Poll surveyed 1,171 millennials, including Yeager, and found that 7 in 10 consider cost to be a "very important" factor when looking for health care.

Even as the percentage of millennials without health insurance drops, 16 percent of young adults do not plan on having insurance in 2017, according to the survey. That includes 47 percent of those who are already uninsured. The most common reason: lack of affordability.

"I would go a month or so where I had no health insurance, hoping nothing would happen," said Yeager, who has been on and off health insurance plans as he switched from one teaching job to another.

"When I knew I was [going to be] uninsured, I would stock up on my prescription by asking doctors to write me a longer script," he said.

In August, Yeager will once again be uninsured as he transitions to a new job closer to his Maryland home.

Despite what many consider prohibitive costs, the percentage of uninsured millennials has steadily declined over the years, from 23 percent in 2013 to 11 percent as of April, according to Hector De La Torre, executive director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies.

The decline could be in part to the health insurance requirements under the Affordable Care Act, he said. Both the percentage of publicly and privately insured millennials has grown since 2013, according to the organization's data.

Yet for many millennials, instead of immediately seeing a doctor or specialist for their health-care needs, they usually skip, delay or stop receiving care. They often take vitamins or supplements to minimize the impact to their health, or rely on their family — particularly their mother — for health information.

"That's how [millennials have] been coping currently," De La Torre said. "Short of getting insurance, I don't see how that changes. It is going to be measuring the cost and benefits with limited budgets."

"I would go a month or so where I had no health insurance, hoping nothing would happen." -Paul Yeager

Because there is a common feeling among millennials that they are "young and invincible," De La Torre said they will often push health care off until something goes wrong.

According to the survey, the most common health conditions facing millennials are anxiety, depression and weight issues, consistent with trends of the general population.

De La Torre said roughly one-third of millennials have comparison shopped for health insurance plans, and that it appears some without coverage are uninformed about their options. Comparison shopping seems like a good place to start to see what's out there and most cost effective, he added.

"That is where public education or nonprofit groups or providers I think can really make some gains about getting young adults on the lower income level on Medicaid," he said.

When shopping for health insurance plans, about 66 percent of millennials said any premium at or about $200 a month is unaffordable. That is consistent with findings from the past three years, according to the study. For some, even $100 a month is a bit too high. De La Torre said this is not surprising, as many young adults are either currently in school, unemployed or transitioning to full-time employment.

The Obama administration announced this month new strategies to push young adults without health insurance, and other uninsured people, to sign up for Obamacare plans in the fall. Because they are young and generally healthy, they are considered critical to keeping prices for those plans down.

The administration will also conduct "smart outreach" during the next open enrollment period beginning in November by emailing people to complete an application for health coverage or to select a health plan and pay their first month's premium if online enrollment systems show that they have paused in finishing such tasks.