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One-third of young adults face medical bill troubles, debt

Health cost headlines, stethoscope and rising graph

(CBS News) Almost 40 percent of young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 did not have health insurance at some point in 2011, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund.

The report also found that more than one-third (36 percent) of young adults had medical bill problems or were currently paying off medical debt. Of those individuals, 43 percent faced serious financial troubles, 32 percent couldn't make their student loans or tuition payments, 31 percent put off education or career plans, and 28 percent couldn't afford essentials such as food, heat or rent because of medical bills.

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For the survey, researchers from the Commonwealth Fund polled 1,863 people, a sample that's representative of 46.6 million U.S. adults between 19 and 29. The researchers also reported that in 2011, 13.7 million young adults between ages 19 and 25 stayed on or joined their parents' health plans, including 6.6 million of which who would not have been able to without the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Before the act went into effect in September 2010, children could only stay on their parents' insurance until they were 19, or until the age of 22 if the children were full-time college students.

"While the Affordable Care Act has already provided a new source of coverage for millions of young adults at risk of being uninsured, more help is needed for those left behind," Commonwealth Fund vice president Sara Collins, lead author of the report, said in a written statement. "The law's major insurance provisions slated for 2014, including expanded Medicaid and subsidized private plans through state insurance exchanges, will provide nearly all young adults across the income spectrum with affordable and comprehensive health plans."

Those who were uninsured or had a gap in coverage were at greatest risk: 51 percent of young adults who were uninsured when surveyed and nearly half with a gap in coverage during the year had a medical bill problem or medical debt. The costs weren't small either. One-quarter of young adults who were paying off medical debt owed $4,000 or more, and 15 percent reported $8,000 or more in debt. Among those with a gap in coverage during the year who were paying off debt, 31 percent had $4,000 or more of medical debt, 21 percent had $8,000 or more and 11 percent had $10,000 or more.

The survey also reflected how health insurance can help these young adults. Eighty-five percent of young adults who were insured during the survey had a regular doctor or place of care, while only 38 percent of those without insurance accessed such care. Rates of preventive care, such as weight and blood pressure checks, were also lower for those with any coverage gaps or who were uninsured. Rates for dental care were similar.

"There's no question that young people have cut back on high-value screenings, doctor visits and therapies," Dr. Mark Fendrick, director of the University of Michigan Center for Value-Based Insurance Design, told CNN. "You twist your knee playing soccer and you go to get an MRI. But if the doctor says you have to pay 50 percent of the cost, you're going to be less likely to go through with it," he said.

For more, check out the complete Commonwealth Fund Health Insurance Tracking Survey of Young Adults.

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