Young and uninsured turn to ... Facebook (The Politico)

By: Ben Adler

In the year between his graduation from college and his first year in law school, Jeff Traylor, 25, worked in a restaurant and was similar to approximately 44 million Americans in this respect: He had no health insurance.

As a waiter, Traylor worked fewer than 30 hours a week and thus did not qualify for insurance as a full-time employee.

"I had to go to low-income clinics," said Traylor, now a second-year student at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

"That's $130 for a visit to get antibiotics for a sinus infection, plus the cost of the drug. I could afford it. But some people cannot."

More recently, Traylor's girlfriend — Amanda Caffall, 25, a service industry worker who hopes to start law school next fall — delayed treatment for ringworm for a month for the same reason: She had no health insurance and couldn't afford a visit to the doctor.

Spurred by his own experience and by his concern for the uninsured, Traylor created a group on the social networking site Facebook to promote universal health care.

His is one of more than 20 groups on Facebook dedicated to advocating expanded government health coverage, and many of them have hundreds of members.

(Searching Facebook turned up only two groups that oppose government-funded health insurance, and neither had more than 100 members.)

This is unsurprising when you consider the surge in interest in health policy among young people, one-third of whom are uninsured.

Some of the Facebook groups, such as Universal Health Care 08 and Reform Health Care With Your Vote in '08 explicitly tie the issue to the 2008 elections.

They offer information on the presidential candidates and statistics on the state of health coverage in America.

The general election will likely offer a stark choice on health insurance.

All of the leading Democratic candidates' plans would gradually insure all, or nearly all, Americans.

The leading Republicans instead focus more generally on reducing the cost of health care through deregulation and changes to the tax code.

In a recent poll of young Americans commissioned by Rock the Vote, only the Iraq war ranked above health care as the most critical issue.

And the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan institution that researches health care in the U.S., found that 42 percent of young people are very worried about being able to afford the health services they think they need.

By comparison, only 30 percent of those 50 and older share that concern.

Thousands online

Molly Brodie, a public opinion expert at Kaiser, has been following the issue closely. "Health care is a topic that young people are engaged in and interested in this campaign," she said.

Like Traylor, many young people have learned personally the high costs — and value — of health insurance.

John Kelly, 24, a graduate student in education at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y., has felt strongly about the need to expand health coverage since suffering a broken leg at 14.

The hospital bill came to $62,000.

Fortunately, his family had health insurance through his father's union.

Had the family been uninsured, the impact on its finances could have been disastrous, said Kelly, who founded the Facebook group Education and Healthcare Should Be Free for All in 2005.

It now has more than 1,000 members.

Young people who are organizing around the issue on Facebook say interest has increased over the past few years.

And Michael Moore's recent documentary "Sicko" helped to galvanize young people.

After seeing the movie, Robert Alsobrook, 28, a sculpture professor at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., started a Facebook group to discuss universal health care.

But will support for expanding health coverage translate into a decisive factor at the ballot box among young voters next year?

According to the Kaiser poll numbers, 56 percent of young people say they want presidential candidates to present a plan that would provide health insurance to all or nearly all of the uninsured, even if it meant a substantial increase in spending.

A poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed health care to be a top priority among voters of all ages.

Democrats ages 18 to 34 considered health care to be the most important issue in the presidential primary, compared with 14 percent of Republicans in that age bracket.

But some observers question whether health care resonates with young people on a deep enough level to really determine their votes.

Michael Tanner, a health care expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, says he does not question the poll results.

"If you're young, you may not have health insurance, so sure, why wouldn't you want it?" he said.

But Tanner contends that "what you'd actually find in practice is that it's not a particularly motivating issue."

When he talks to student groups, Tanner said he finds them more concerned about foreign policy, hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights or the rising cost of college tuition.

"The war gets [college students] riled up," he said.

Of course, college students all have health insurance available to them through their schools.

Many, like Traylor, become politicized when their health insurance ceases after graduation.

Andrew E. Smith, who runs the UNH Survey Center, isn't sure what impact health care will have on young voters at election time.

"Health care is certainly going to be the domestic issue that Democrats are going to be running on," he said, but he doubts people will base their votes on that issue alone.

Young health care advocates generally agree. Many, like Traylor, are already committed to Democrats anyway.

Others, like Alsobrook — an independent who voted for President Bush in 2004 — remain uncommitted and say health care will be just one of many factors in their decision.

Smith shares Tanner's belief that health care doesn't rouse the passions of young voters as much as the war in Iraq.

After all, he said, "It's hard to think about people going to a big demonstration over health care."

Indeed, many young people are fortunate to be so healthy that it isn't an issue for them.

Tanner points to this — the fact that some of the young uninsured could buy insurance but choose not to — as proof that they don't really care about it.

But for many, the issue resonates only after they experience a serious illness or injury.

"I never would have been out of debt had I not had insurance," Traylor said about the injuries he sustained in a skiing accident at 19.

"Seeing it from the insured side gives me a tremendous amount of sympathy for those who don't have it."