New state law eases medical coverage for 20-somethings

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Families will now be able to keep their unmarried children on their group health insurance policies up to age 29, thanks to a law signed by Gov. David A. Paterson last week.

The governor also signed into law an extension of COBRA from 18 months to 36 months. COBRA gives employees who have lost their jobs the option to buy continued health coverage that had been provided by their group health plan.

Medical groups and consumer advocates praised the two laws, though one questioned whether their impact would be sweeping.

"I think everything you do to extend insurance coverage is helpful," said Arthur Levin, director of the nonprofit Center for Medical Consumers in Manhattan. But he called the laws "teeny, tiny steps."

"At the end of the day, you're not attacking the big problem," he said, referring to the uninsured and the high cost of health care.

More than 30 percent of 2.5 million uninsured New Yorkers are ages 19-29, according to the governor's office.

Until now, many of those people became ineligible for coverage under their parents' policy after 19 or when they graduated from college. An increasing number are also unemployed or have low-paying jobs that do not offer health coverage.

The new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, will allow parents to keep an unmarried child who doesn't have health insurance on their policy. The child does not have to be financially dependent on the parents or live at home.

The caveat: Parents will probably have to pay more for the coverage, said Paul Macielak, president of New York Health Plan Association, the state trade association for managed care plans. Because the law does not require employers to subsidize the coverage, parents most likely will have to pay the full premium for the child if the employer decides not to pay part of the cost.

Macielak said the law would most likely benefit those parents whose children have pre-existing medical conditions and/or those who can afford to pay the full premium.

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Healthy kids whose parents have expensive policies might do better with other options such as Family Health Plus, Macielak said. That is the state's insurance program for adults ages 19 to 64 who have limited income but make too much to qualify for Medicaid.

New Jersey has had a similar law extending coverage for dependent children since 2005, raising the maximum age this year from 30 to 31. Marshall McKnight, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance, estimated that about 30,000 people have taken advantage of the law since 2005, though reportedly 100,000 had been expected to take advantage of the law when it was first enacted.

How many New Yorkers could buy coverage under the new COBRA extension, retroactive to July 1, is unclear, according to Andrew Mais, a spokesman for the New York State Insurance Department.

The latest federal labor statistics show the state has an 8.7 percent unemployment rate. Mais said there also has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of people forced to cut back to part-time hours at their job. Many of these could also lose access to employer-based coverage and might need COBRA, he added. Also, those workers who are pushed into early retirement and lose access to employer coverage could also benefit.

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