Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

January 2, 2006  



Drop college requirement for health plan coverage

by Thomas F. Coleman

When New Hampshire lawmakers return to the Statehouse this week, the first bill on the House calendar is known as "Michelle's Law," named for Michelle Morse, a 22-year-old Plymouth State University graduate who recently died after a lengthy battle with cancer.

The measure, HB 37, would extend health insurance coverage for up to one year to college students who must take leaves of absence due to serious illnesses.

Michelle was diagnosed with colon cancer in December 2003.  Doctors recommended that she reduce her class load in order to avoid stress and to focus more on her therapy program.

Despite this medical advice, Michelle pressed forward with her full-time college schedule.  If she dropped out of college, or even became a part time student, Michelle would have lost her health coverage.

Michelle's medical bills were being paid for by her mother's health plan at work.  That plan allows for unmarried full-time college students to continue with free medical coverage under a parent's benefits package.  If a student leaves college or becomes a part-time student, the parent is required to pay $550 per month to keep an adult child on the plan.

Michelle's mother, AnnMarie Morse, could not afford the $550 monthly fee.  So Michelle reluctantly decided to continue with the full course load, despite all the pressure which that entailed.

Michelle died in November, just days before a House committee was scheduled to vote on "Michelle's Law."   The bill passed out of committee unanimously and will be considered this week by the full House.

Most young adults cannot afford to pay for health insurance on their own because they simply do not have sufficient income to pay for a medical plan in addition to other necessities such as rent, car payments, auto insurance, food, and clothes.  Many are full-time or part-time college students, while others who are not in school are stuck in minimum-wage jobs.

Most young people lose health care coverage under their parents' plans when they turn 19, although full-time students often are given an exception.

Although the New Hampshire bill is aimed at a narrow group of students -- those who must take medical leave due to a serious illness -- several other states have taken or are considering a broader approach.  They would allow young adults to remain on their parents' plans longer regardless of whether they are in college.

According to Laura Tobler, a health policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, reforms in some states are addressing the nation's fastest growing uninsured population: young people ages 18 to 24.

In Utah and New Mexico, dependents are covered until their 26th birthday, regardless of whether they are enrolled in school.  A similar measure passed the California Legislature last year but was vetoed by the Governor.  That bill is expected to be reintroduced this year.

A New Jersey bill would allow dependents up to age 30 to remain on their parents' plans, though companies could charge more for such coverage.  New York is considering raising the maximum age for dependents from 23 to 25.

Under a new law which went into effect this week, Colorado residents up to age 25 can be covered under their parents' plans as long as they are unmarried, financially dependent on their parents or living with them.

Even if "Michelle's Law" passes the New Hampshire Legislature and is signed by the Governor, as expected, Michelle's mother says she will not be satisfied because state laws such as this can only regulate health insurance carriers and health maintenance organizations, but not self-funded health benefits plans.

So AnnMarie Morse will push for changes in federal law that would apply to employers with self-funded insurance plans, including the school district where she works.

Although Michelle's case is heart wrenching and compelling, it is only a symbol of a much larger national problem.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 30 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 lack health coverage.

The passage of "Michelle's Law" in New Hampshire should trigger a national conversation about the need for broader legal reforms and the development of creative strategies to provide health coverage for more young adults.

An enlightened conversation on this subject should lead to the conclusion that health coverage for Americans should not depend on college enrollment.   It should also stimulate more states to pass laws protecting those who turn 19 from being dropped from a parent's health plan at work. 

The details of such new laws may vary from state to state, and reforms may require some financial contribution by young adults or parents, but on one point there should be a consensus.  The time has come to eliminate workplace rules requiring full-time college attendance in order for a parent to continue health coverage for a child past the age of 19.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.