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Insurers pick up $147 million tab for young adults under Obamacare

Betsie Van Der Meer / Getty Images Stock

A new study finds that Obamacare shifted $147 million in costs of care for young adults to insurers.

One of the first provisions of the 2010 health reform law has had its intended effect: shifting costs from hospitals, taxpayers and families to health insurance companies, researchers reported on Thursday.

It’s one of the most popular aspects of the law. It requires insurance companies to cover young adults, aged 19 to 26, on their parents’ policies if the families ask. These young adults are the most likely to “wing it” without insurance.

Katherine Harris and colleagues at the RAND Corporation checked to see if the provision actually helped in the one area where young adults are the most likely to seek care -- in the emergency room after an accident or during an acute illness.

One reason young adults are so willing to go without health care is that they are unlikely to have the health conditions that send their parents to the doctor: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, strokes or arthritis. But they’re even more likely than older adults to have accidents -- and the results can be pricey to treat in emergency rooms.

“We purposely looked at a narrow set of conditions -- things that were painful and serious, things that people would seek emergency treatment for regardless of whether they had insurance,” Harris said in a telephone interview. These included broken bones, head injuries and acute appendicitis.

“We evaluated more than 480,000 of these non-discretionary visits from 2009 through 2011,” Harris said in a telephone interview.

Over that time, more than 22,000 newly insured young adults visited emergency rooms for treatment, the RAND group found -- an increase of more than 3 percentage points. Over a year, insurers paid out $147 million in claims for these patients -- claims that otherwise would have been paid  by the patients, their families, taxpayers, or absorbed by the hospitals.

The report, published in the new England Journal of Medicine, represents one of the first real measures of how health reform is working and whether it’s truly shifting costs. The findings suggest it is, Harris says.

“We wanted to make sure that what was anticipated actually happened,” she said.

One of the main goals of the 2010 health reform law, officially called the Affordable Care Act, was to get more people covered by health insurance. A study done last year by the Census Bureau shows that the changes brought 500,000 young adults aged 19 to 26 onto the rolls of insured Americans.

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