Obamacare’s efforts to expand access to health insurance for young Americans may be helping them maintain better health and financial security, according to a large new study analyzing the impact of health care reform over the past four years. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Wednesday, found that young Americans are now reporting better physical and mental health and their out-of-pocket medical expenses have declined.
“The health insurance that people are gaining seems to be doing what it is supposed to do,” Dr. Kao-Ping Chua, a pediatrician at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study, told the Los Angeles Times.
In 2010, Obamacare began allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans until the age of 26. Since then, several surveys have found that the rate of uninsurance among that population has sharply declined. The JAMA study is one of the first to attempt to more broadly measure the impact of this aspect of the Affordable Care Act in the four years since it took effect.
In order to assess Obamacare’s impact, the researchers analyzed annual survey data collected between 2002 and 2011, before and after the coverage provision’s implementation. They tracked information from more than 60,000 people who fell into one of two different groups: young people between the ages of 19 to 25, who became newly eligible to remain dependents on their parents’ plans, and a control group of older adults between the ages of 26 to 34 who could not take advantage of that provision.
Some significant differences emerged between the two populations. Among the younger group, there was a 6.2 percentage point increase in people reporting excellent physical health, as well as a 4 percentage point increase in people reporting excellent mental health. That group was also more likely to be insured, and experienced an 18 percent decline in their annual out-of-pocket medical costs.
The researchers didn’t notice an increase in health care usage among young adults, so it’s unclear exactly what role insurance may have played in their health outcomes. Chua speculated that even if young adults didn’t use their insurance, some of them may have enjoyed “a greater sense of security and health” knowing that they were covered under their parents’ plans. “Utilization may not have picked up in year one of the provision, but as people get used to the idea of having insurance they may start using it more,” he added in an interview with Reuters.
Obamacare’s coverage expansion for young adults is one of the law’s most popular provisions. Even prominent Republicans who say they want to repeal the law as a whole — like former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and potential 2016 contender Marco Rubio (R-FL) — have acknowledged they want to find a way to keep that policy in place. This spring, an Obamacare alternative floated by the House GOP leadership preserved that particular aspect of the law.