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States narrow insurance gap

Some legislatures are letting children remain longer on their parents' health policies.

Associated Press
Published January 4, 2006


CONCORD, N.H. - In the months before colon cancer took her life, aspiring teacher Michelle Morse attended Plymouth State University full-time, often wearing a chemotherapy pump on her hip to class or when she did her student teaching.

To remain covered under her mother's health insurance, Morse had to either maintain a full course load or pay about $550 a month. She chose the former, even though her doctors urged her to cut back.

"I'm scared for my mom and dad," she wrote in her journal in December 2003, just after she was diagnosed. "I want to make this easier on them."

By the time she died in November at 22, Morse had become a reluctant celebrity, lending her name to a bill aimed at sparing others the tough decision she faced.

"Michelle's Law" would require health insurance companies that cover college students under their parents' plans to continue the coverage if a student takes a medical leave of absence.

Morse's mother, AnnMarie Morse, has become the driving force behind the legislation. "I have a lot of energy," AnnMarie Morse said in a recent interview. "I knew the odds were against us . . . but I knew I had to do something else."

A state House committee unanimously recommended the bill in November, and the House will vote on it on today.

Other states have taken a broader approach by allowing young adults to remain on their parents' plans longer, regardless of whether they are in college.

Those laws are aimed at addressing the nation's fastest-growing uninsured population: young people ages 18 to 24, said Laura Tobler, a health policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thirty percent of Americans in that age group had no health insurance in 2003, according to a report issued in December by the National Center for Health Statistics. Many young people work only part-time or have jobs that do not offer coverage.

Children typically lose health care coverage under their parents' plans when they turn 19, though full-time students often are given an exception. But in the past year, at least 12 states have considered or enacted laws broadening coverage of college-age dependents, Tobler said.

Starting Jan. 1, 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.

Under current Florida law, dependents up to age 25 are covered by their parents' health insurance if they are in school either full- or part-time. (The law applies only to fully insured contracts, not to the self-funded plans often offered by large employers.) No changes in Florida law have been proposed.

New York, which already has a law like the one proposed in New Hampshire, is considering raising the maximum age for dependents from 23 to 25.

Such laws will not solve the larger problem but are a good stopgap measure, said Trudy Lieberman, director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumers Reports. "For people who are betwixt and between jobs and school, until we have a more inclusive system, this is an okay thing to do," she said.

The insurance industry generally hasn't opposed such changes because, aside from expensive cases like Morse's, carriers are getting paid higher family-plan premiums to cover the healthiest segment of the population, said New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine, an insurance agent who sponsored the New Hampshire bill.

Realizing that the nature of higher education has changed, many insurance companies are allowing college students to remain on their parents' plans longer, said Larry Akey, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans. Students are taking longer to complete their college educations and are increasingly pursuing advanced degrees.

But he said the insurance industry has sought to limit the definition of dependents to students or those who are financially dependent on their parents.

That was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's argument when he vetoed a bill in October that would have required insurers to continue coverage of dependent children until age 26. Schwarzenegger said the bill would hurt employers already struggling to afford the rising costs of health care and could lead to higher premiums. He also said the bill might have actually reduced the number of young adults with coverage if it prompted employers to stop offering family plans.

In Texas, employers have reacted favorably to a law passed several years ago that allows young adults up to age 25 to remain on their parents' plans whether they are in college in or not, said Don Atherton, owner of Integrated Benefits Solutions in Houston, which helps companies choose insurance plans. He said insurance companies and employers appreciate not having to keep tabs on which dependents are attending school.

"I think insurers never like the idea of increasing exposure, but if they can charge for it, that's okay," he said.

Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 4, 2006, 01:08:07]


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