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The Boston Globe

Politics

Affordable Care Act leads to 3.1 million young adults gaining health coverage

WASHINGTON -- The US Department of Health and Human Services released a report Tuesday showing that President Obama’s health care overhaul has benefited 3.1 million young adults who have gained insurance through their parents’ health plans, a popular provision of the otherwise controversial law.

Federal health officials have been on a push to sell the law to Americans, regularly releasing reports on how the law has benefited various population groups. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law in coming days.

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The court will decide whether the unpopular requirement that nearly all Americans purchase health insurance or face a penalty is constitutional. It will also determine whether the rest of the law could stand without the mandate, and whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by expanding Medicaid and forcing states to adopt the new coverage thresholds to continue receiving federal dollars.

The law also contains many consumer protections favored by both Democrats and Republicans. Key among them is the provision to extend insurance to more young people.

The law requires insurers to allow young adults to remain on their parents’ family plans until they turn 26, even after moving away from home or graduating from college. As a result, the proportion of insured adults ages 19 through 25 rose to nearly 75 percent, up from 64 percent prior to the provision taking effect in September 2010.

“In the past, many young adults just starting their careers or still studying struggled to find affordable coverage,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, on a conference call with reporters. “It’s clear that this policy doesn’t just give young adults and their families peace of mind. It also gives them additional freedoms.”

Prior to the law, young adults were the least likely demographic to have health insurance -- and were almost twice as likely to forgo insurance as older Americans, Sebelius said. That led some to take jobs they otherwise would not have chosen simply for the security of health insurance, and others to eschew regular preventative care, she said.

The department estimates that in Massachusetts, 21,000 young people gained access to health insurance because of the federal law. But officials emphasize that state-by-state numbers are only a rough approximation.

Massachusetts’ health law already contained a similar provision, but the state required young people to be covered by their parents’ plans only for two years after they lose tax status as dependents, typically by age 24 for those who go to college.

Asked by a reporter whether the recent announcement by some of the nation’s largest insurers that they would keep the coverage option for those under 26 even if the court strikes down the federal law hurts the law’s prospects, Richard Kronick, deputy assistant secretary for health policy, defended the full package.

“Only a law can guarantee those protections,” Kronick said.

As for any contingency plans to maintain these popular provisions if part or all of the law is scuttled, federal health officials are staying mum.

“I’m not going to get into what we may or may not do after a decision,” said Kronick, emphasizing that he expects the court to render a decision upholding the law’s constitutionality.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.

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