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Hey, Young Activists: Where the Heck are You on Health Reform?

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I spent hundreds of hours working to elect Barack Obama president. Working even harder alongside me were thousands of college students and 20-somethings who used their social networks, taught me the name "Will.i.am," nudged parents and grandparents, knocked on doors, and got out the vote. President Obama would still be Senator Obama if young people hadn't made that heavy lift.

Where are these same young people today? Polls indicate that 18 to 29-year-olds strongly support the President. Yet young people seem fickle and strangely passive, watching from the sidelines as others wage the political knife fight required to get this done.

We can all offer some reasons why: It's hard for 20-somethings to get excited about free colonoscopies or co-ops and the public plan option. Some of this stuff is mind-numbing in its complexity--particularly if you feel decades away from needing most of the medical care we are now discussing. Maybe my own move from HuffPo to tnr.com has soured the younger demographic. Maybe it's summer vacation.

Whatever the cause, young activists need to get past it and step up. It has been embarrassing to see loutish Tea Party types dominate public debate. It was more embarrassing that our wonderful movement that elected America's first African-American president couldn't make a better showing. The absence of energetic young people is palpable. I have been to several town halls. Almost everyone there was over 50. Most were markedly older.

Seniors are doing exactly what they should be doing: getting involved. What about you, young people? Will your voices be heard?

If you are a young person, you may not believe you have much at stake in this fight. You do.

First and most simply, this is the key test of the Obama presidency. Republicans are united right now because defeating health reform would deeply wound the Obama presidency and the entire progressive agenda. A victory in the health reform fight would be a historic achievement. It would also provide President Obama and the Democrats political capital they sorely need to pursue their broader agenda.

Republicans want a repeat of 1993 and 1994. Playing out the clock, exploiting ossifying Senate rules, and exploiting the fears of seniors, they may succeed. If you care about the environment, global human rights, GLBT issues, corporate accountability, and more, you need to be out there fighting for health reform.

Second, you have a more personal stake in this than you think. I've taught thousands of grad students and undergraduates at Yale, Michigan, and Chicago. On average, my students are probably more affluent than the typical reader of this blog. Hundreds have still gone without health coverage for some period. Their reasons varied for going uninsured. Some were between jobs. Some couldn't afford it. Some simply believed they were young and healthy and chose to take a chance rather than pay stiff premiums. Most of the time, things worked out alright, not always when freak accidents or illness strike. H.R. 3200 and the Senate HELP bill would allow parents to keep their young adult children on the family policy until age 26.

Third, you have parents (maybe grandparents), whom you love and who need health reform. It stinks to watch a parent lose her health insurance because she contracts cancer or MS. It stinks to see her stuck at a lousy job because she needs the health care. It stinks to watch people we love facing major financial struggles because they got sick or can't afford the $13,000 full-freight yearly premium for a family of four.

Fourth, you care about the character of our country. Do you want to inherit a nation in which people lose their homes when they get breast cancer or MS? Do you want to live in a country that spends vastly more per capita than any other, yet still doesn't treat people decently? Do you want to live in a country that leaves tens of millions of working people uninsured or underinsured?

Fifth, you want a stable and humane health system that will be there when you will need it. Right now, our traditional system of employer-based health insurance is unraveling before our eyes. Health care is imposing serious and growing burdens on public and private budgets. Fundamental reform is required to set this right.

With all the shouting and recrimination, you may believe that there is nothing you can do. That's wrong. First, learn the facts. Go to nonpartisan websites that explain the similarities and differences among the different bills. Keep up with the New York Times or Washington Post every day, in print or on line. Follow experts such as Jonathan Cohn and Ezra Klein. The bills have complicated details, but the basic structure is simpler than people believe.

Then get involved.

Call or write your Representative or your Senator. Get some of your friends to do the same. You'd be surprised what a real impact this has.

Sit your butt down at a town hall or forum in your community. Be civil but unapologetic in standing up for progressive values. After you attend, write about your experience in a short and clear letter to your community newspaper.

Moderate and conservative Democrats are wavering, at least in part because they fear the intense commitment of the other side. We need to show that we have even greater passion, patience, and determination to win.

Health reform won't be easy, because everyone involved--taxpayers, insurers, providers, and patients--will have to sacrifice something before this is done. The most apathetic and disorganized constituency in this game, young people will not fare well if they--er, you--remain uninvolved.

In other words: Get into the game, guys. We need your help--again.

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