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A Graduation Gift

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With graduation just around the corner, many of you are preparing to start a new chapter in your lives. With anticipation and perhaps a hint of nervousness, you are deciding where to live and what to do. But some of you also have a third question on your mind: where am I going to get health insurance? And the good news is you may not have to worry any longer. An important new provision in last year's health care law means that most young adults can now stay on their parents' health plan until age 26.

Up until now, many of you have probably been covered by your parent's health insurance. But in the past, when the caps and gown disappeared after graduation day, so did health care coverage. That's when graduates quickly learned what millions of Americans experience painfully every day: health insurance can be incredibly expensive, especially when you have to purchase it on your own.

Historically, many young people whose jobs didn't provide health insurance decided to go without it. As a result, young adults are almost twice as likely to be uninsured as older Americans.

This can be tempting when you're still young and feeling strong and healthy. But accidents happen and disease can strike unexpectedly. Going without health coverage leave you just a setback away from a lifetime of medical debt or worse. And it can keep you from getting the checkups and preventive care that can help keep you healthy.

Just as bad are the compromises some young adults make to obtain health insurance. Over the years, too many talented young people, especially those with preexisting conditions, have been forced to choose the job with health insurance over their real dream, whether it was working for a small non-profit, going to grad school, or even starting their own business.

This wasn't just bad for young people. It was bad for our economy, stifling innovation and entrepreneurship and keeping people locked in jobs they didn't want to do.

Under the health care law, this is changing. Now, as young adults begin their careers, they can stay on their parents' plan up until age 26 as long as they meet two conditions: First, your parents' plan must cover dependents, as most plans do. Second, you must be unable to obtain coverage from your employer.

The class of 2011 will be the first to graduate with this new option in place, and as many as 1.2 million young Americans could gain insurance coverage this year as a result. What this means for new graduates is that you will have the freedom to make career choices based on what you want to do, not on where you can get health insurance.

This provision will make a particularly big difference for young people like Emily Schlichting. At age 19, Emily was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. She was devastated to learn that she would require regular treatment for the rest of her life. And she was scared of what would happen after she graduated from college and lost her health coverage. With a pre-existing condition as serious as hers, Emily would have found it nearly impossible to find a policy that she could afford.

Now, thanks to the health care law she can stay on her parents' plan after she graduates and continue to get the medicine and care that she needs. And because the new law will end discrimination based on pre-existing health conditions for all Americans in 2014, Emily knows that no matter what she decides to do, she'll be able to get health insurance. "I can't tell you how much that peace of mind means," she says. "It sounds like it's an intangible. But in my life, it's very real."

To learn more about this new benefit, visit facebook.com/youngadultcoverage. And tell your friends. In the months and years ahead, college graduates will face plenty of big decisions. The question of whether or not you will be able to get health insurance should not be one of them.

Kathleen Sebelius is the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services; Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.