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It was a remarkable showing of solidarity, kindness, and collegiality. Keep in mind that these are students in their first year of law school at New York University. They have been told that their grades will determine whether they are selected for prestigious internships and jobs. In that moment, my classmates didn’t know whether there would be adjustments to the way the exam was graded or if they’d be penalized for showing up for me. And yet, they decided to help anyway.
I was grateful at the time. Looking back on it now, though, I wish I could tell them, “If you really want to help sick people like me, you’ll sign up for health insurance.”
I’m one of roughly 117 million people in the U.S. who have a “pre-existing medical condition.” In my case, I have epilepsy. Under the proposed GOP plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, if I have to buy insurance privately, I could be charged more because of my epilepsy. The premiums charged could bankrupt me if young people choose not to sign up for healthcare because tax credits will be based on age, not income.
My first memories of having seizures are from when I was 10 years old. I was doing my math homework and kept losing my place. I did the same calculations over and over again as if my brain was hitting a reset button.
Now, at 26, I have been seizure-free for 18 months with the assistance of a combination of medications that I take three times a day. I have tried to come off of medications in the past but have always ended up having another seizure. Right now, it looks as though I will have to take medicine every day for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, I am among the two-thirds of people with epilepsy who can control their seizures with medicine. But without insurance coverage, the drugs that allow me to function at my full capacity would cost me hundreds of dollars a month out of pocket. I would end up having to make hard choices between food, rent, and medicine.
My focus in law school is criminal law. However, this past November, after the election of President Trump and his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare with something “better,” I quickly had to become an expert on health care policy. Because of my seizure disorder, my ability to function in school and in society depends on access to health care.
NYU Law, like many other universities, requires its students to have health insurance. But once we graduate, people my age can only gain access by purchasing insurance privately, finding an employer who offers health benefits (though is jeopardized under the GOP’s American Health Care Act), or qualifying for Medicaid.
Even with Obamacare’s individual mandate in place, many young people choose to go without health coverage. And if the Republicans’ plan to remove the mandate passes the Senate, it’s likely even fewer young people will become insured.
But I want my peers to realize that what keeps health care affordable for people like me is for those with fewer medical needs to sign up for insurance. Heath insurance functions kind of like splitting a cab – the more people in the pool, the less it costs.
One of the things that I have found most surprising as I’ve done this research, is that part of the reason the Affordable Care Act was not as successful initially as it could have been, is that not enough young people signed up to keep premiums at an affordable price. Though my peers in the classroom that day were quick to jump up when I needed their help, most people my age probably wouldn’t have signed up for health insurance, if not required to do so.
Getting healthy young people to care about health care is a battle politicians know well and have handled with varying degrees of success. I chuckle thinking back to President Obama’s chat with Zach Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns and the many other efforts he made to reach young people where they are and encourage them to sign up for health care.
Many actuaries say that, for the individual health insurance market to be stable, 40 percent of enrollees need to be young and healthy. In 2014, that number was only 28 percent. The percentage stayed the same through 2016.
I often wonder why President Obama, when he was promoting the Affordable Care Act to millennials, didn’t bring out a young person like me to help my peers understand why it matters that they sign up for health insurance. Rather than trying to sell us on the affordability of enrollment, or relying on humor, or reminding us that we are not invincible, he could have relied on the compassion we exhibit one-on-one in supporting each other. After all, Barack Obama, relied on the youth vote to win both of his campaigns. He didn’t use gimmicks then — he spoke to young people as though we were capable of understanding our importance in the world. The 2016 election, which lacked substance and focused on negative campaigning, also saw a decrease in voter turnout among young people.
As politically aware, or “woke” as my peers seem to me, I worry that making the effort to understand and sign up for health insurance is low on people’s priority list. And I get it. There is a lot to be afraid of right now and a lot of areas needing attention. It’s almost too much to bear. I understand the impulse to look away, change the channel, or unfollow. But in the same way that people my age are galvanized to organize—whether that’s knitting a sea of pink hats, protesting in the streets, or calling their representatives– they can show up for who those that currently and those that will need heath care by going online right now, and signing up for heath insurance.
Aditi Juneja, 26, graduates from NYU Law School this week.