Another tilt at the windmill, more wasted taxpayer funds, but a win for uninsured Maine young people

The Supreme Court today declined to hear the LePage Administration’s appeal of a November 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against the Administration’s request to cut 6,000 low-income 19- and 20-year olds’ Medicaid coverage, leaving them uninsured.  One fact is evident on its face: consigning young Mainers to the ranks of the uninsured right out of high school graduation is bad policy.  It doesn’t reflect the economic realities of young Mainers, who experience higher rates of un- and under-employment. The governor’s rejected proposal would further widen the rift between the haves and the have-nots.

Data show that being a young adult in Maine isn’t what it used to be: there’s less opportunity, and increasingly, the jobs that are available pay low wages.  Maine ranks near the bottom among the states in  delivering economic prosperity for young people: three in four workers between 18 and 24 work at low-wage jobs, one of the worst rates in the nation. The LePage administration’s appeal was not only out of tune with that fact, it was out of alignment with the very thing that would grow our state economy most: helping more young Mainers enter college and complete a degree.

In 1993, 80 percent of American parents thought young people should be independent by age 22.  That’s probably because twenty-somethings armed with a high school diploma used to be more likely to find a living-wage job or at least a path to a good living through quality on-the-job- training.  Not anymore. The LePage administration brief’s contention that Medicaid funds should not cover “job-ready young adults” ignores the reality that in today’s economy, most 19- and 20-year olds are not “job ready” because most jobs that pay a living wage require at least a two-year degree.  Many of the jobs available to young, inexperienced workers with only a high school degree  do not offer full-time hours – much less health coverage.

The component of health reform allowing children to remain on their parents’ policy until age 26 is one of its most popular features- one even vocal opponents of the law rarely criticize.  Young adults born to parents with jobs offering health coverage will continue to benefit from this provision, giving them both health coverage and protection from the economic calamity of an accident or illness while they complete a degree, find their way in the job market and pay off college debt.  On the other hand, if the governor’s appeal had prevailed, thousands of low-income young adults would have lost their insurance coverage, many of them with parents working in low wage jobs without health coverage themselves.

The consequences for many current college students would have been catastrophic.  Health insurance is mandatory for students at Maine’s public campuses.  Students at the flagship campus can sign up for a college policy that comes with a $2,500 deductible. Prescription drugs do not count against the deductible.   Many middle-earner families would find a $2,500 deductible difficult to afford – much less a college student from a low-income background. Already, due to the growing gap between the cost of higher education and available grants, college has become least affordable for the poorest students.  Testimonials from financial aid officers show that it’s not unheard of for low-income students to drop out for want of $500 to meet a pressing need.  In contrast, the governor used over $53,000 of his taxpayer-supported contingency funds to pursue this appeal that even the state’s attorney general told him would fail.  Wasting thousands in taxpayer dollars in a quixotic attempt to deny insurance coverage for young people isn’t the best investment in Maine’s future.