11/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Youth Seek Voice In Health Care Debate

Young voters were instrumental in helping elect President Obama but since then they've felt largely ignored by the political process. Now a number of youth advocacy organizations are insisting that they may have an important role to play in the health care debate.

Young adults -- between the ages of 19 and 29 -- account for 13 of the 47 million uninsured Americans. So they will be among those most affected by any requirement for universal coverage. Young people were the main focus of Obama's speech on Thursday to the University of Maryland. The speech "changed the game," said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote. "All signs indicate that the administration is taking young people seriously now," she continued, "and if young people respond, as I expect they will, and use their voice, it becomes a cycle where the legislators are forced to respond back to young people."

One key issue for young adults is the ability to remain on their parents' insurance policies as long as possible. Twenty-six states have recently passed legislation of this sort, allowing unmarried twenty-somethings without work-related health insurance to retain their status as dependents and continue coverage under their parents' plans.

Obama has voiced support for this option in the past and reiterated it on Thursday: "Under my plan, if your parents have heath insurance and you're currently on their policy, you will automatically be able to keep your coverage until you're 26 years old." According to Smith: "That alone would cover one out of three uninsured young Americans."

The tendency of young adults to change jobs frequently and move around often necessitates some sort of mobile coverage that will stay with them as they move through life and not disappear after a job or change of address, according to youth advocates for health care reform. The organizations are also calling for an expansion to catastrophic coverage, which only covers major medical procedures and not preventative care.

Biko Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters said it's not just politicians who tend to overlook the young: "I think that the mainstream media is ignoring the youth story. Ari Matusiak, co-founder of Young Invincibles, which mobilizes youth around health care, said that the process is self-perpetuating. "There's a little bit of a chicken and egg here," he explained. Commentators and politicians claim that young voters don't think they need health care, so they are generally ignored, which alienates them to the process as a whole.

Visibility campaigns are a key tool, from Rock the Vote's "Yes We Care," which sends pledge cards to the White House, to Young Invincibles' "Y.I. Want Change," a photo petition that aims to put actual faces and real stories on the issue.

"Our whole effort is, since no one's asking us, making sure we tell them directly," said Matusiak.

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