S.C. lawmakers study health insurance plan

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina would be taking one of the most aggressive stands in the nation in extending health insurance to its young adults under a proposal lawmakers will discuss today.

A bill proposed by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, would require insurance companies to insure adult dependents up to age 25.

Full-time college or trade school students could remain on their parents' coverage until age 30. Military veterans -- those who join the service for a few years, then return home to attend college or trade school -- could be covered under a parental health insurance policy up to age 33.

Access to health insurance is one of the greatest challenges facing the United States today, Lourie said, and with fewer employers offering insurance in a troubled economy, young people are struggling to afford coverage.

"There's a growing number of people in our state that are uninsured," Lourie said. "I believe state government has to look at as many solutions as it possibly can to address this."

Lourie cited statistics that show roughly 40 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in South Carolina have no health insurance, making them twice as likely to be uninsured as their fellow state residents. There are more than 300,000 South Carolinians in that age group, according to a 2006 census count.

Currently, a child can be covered by a parent's health insurance until age 19. That extends to 22 years old if the dependent child is a full-time student.

Experts say the S.C. plan to cover more young adults won't cost the state a nickel, but there will be opposition when the Senate Banking and Insurance Subcommittee takes up the legislation today.

"Make no mistake about it, this is a mandate on the employers in this state who are currently struggling to provide health insurance coverage to their employees," said Larry Marchant, spokesman for the S.C. Alliance of Health Plans, the state insurance companies' trade association.

Marchant applauded the state's effort and said insurers would comply with whatever the state decides. But Marchant also warned the proposal could wind up limiting coverage by costing employers more.

"Sometimes proposals that look good on the surface have unintended consequences," Marchant said.

Extending the age requirement on dependents would also increase the cost of family coverage to policyholders, Marchant said. Families likely would leave their more expensive, chronically ill dependents covered, while their less costly, healthier young dependents rotate off to their own coverage.

Laura Tobler, health program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, agreed the proposal would raise premiums.

But at least 17 states have passed laws the past two years extending health insurance coverage for young adults. In nearly all of those states, Tobler said, the employers cover whatever additional cost is involved.

So far, only New Jersey has extended the dependent age up to 30, as South Carolina proposes, and the Garden State has a provision that allows a covered adult to purchase a rider policy to accomplish it, Tobler said.

"I think this is a very easy way for states to get involved in offering coverage to the young, and there hasn't been a big upheaval of opposition to it anywhere."

Tobler said 19- to 26-year-olds are the fastest-growing group of uninsured Americans and represent a larger percentage of the uninsured than any other age group. There are about 700,000 uninsured residents in South Carolina.

Clemson University, the state's second-largest public university, said it supports the Lourie bill. "We support anything that can make health insurance more affordable for more young people," said George Clay, executive director of student health services at Clemson.

Clay said 15 percent to 20 percent of the university's 18,000 undergraduate students do not have health insurance. By contrast, all of Clemson's 2,800 graduate students have health insurance, because it is required by the university.

Some schools quietly are discussing making health insurance mandatory for all students, Clay said. Students without health insurance generally don't get prescriptions filled, fail to take proper diagnostic tests, take longer to recover from illnesses, and do less well in school, Clay said.

It is unclear whether additional opposition will arise against the Lourie proposal, but it won't come from the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, according to Frank Knapp, president of the organization. "I can't think of any small employer this would have a negative effect (upon)."