The two best things about one graduation reception I attended this weekend: ribs (now that's reception food!) and the opportunity to visit with a former student about her future.
This young woman first came to my classroom as a nervous, goofy freshman (I know, those adjectives before freshman are usually redundant). She graduates now with her bright eyes locked confidently on the future and whatever comes next. She wants to pursue modeling and acting, has already done some auditioning in Los Angeles, and now plans to work some, save up money, and try out the Chicago market. She knows college is important, but she hasn't liked what she's seen of college so far. I'm working on her on that one... but she and I both recognize that a lot of young people would be better off if they waited to go to college until they know what they want rather than just heading blindly off to freshman year as if it were Grade 13.
This young woman knows that modeling and acting are tough careers to break into. She knows she can't just walk into a room and coast on her good looks. Pretty women are everywhere. She'll have to audition and take "No" for an answer countless times, and even when she starts getting "Yes" for an answer, she'll still struggle to make a living.
In the great entrepreneurial spirit of America, this young woman is willing to take that risk. She's willing to work hard, save her money, move to a faraway city, take rejection after rejection, all to pursue a career she enjoys and will be good at. Go see the "No one's gonna stop me" fire in her eyes; you'll see she's serious.
But something could stop her: health insurance. She has endometriosis. Not fatal, treatable with birth control pills (assuming the local pharmacist will fill the prescription), but it hurts, can cause infertility, and might have some links to cancer. When she goes off her parents' health coverage at the end of this year, her pre-existing condition may make it impossible for her to find an affordable individual health insurance policy. As she looks for jobs, she won't be able to prioritize how well those jobs fit with her skills or career aspirations; she'll have to look first at whether the company offers a good health policy. And the moment she takes a job with good coverage, that health insurance policy will chain her to that workplace in a way that will stifle her artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors, as it does with many other young Americans.
We all have to pay the bills. Sometimes we have to do things we don't like to make ends meet. But America's private health coverage system puts a crimp on the free market system. In Canada and other countries with public health coverage, where the premium citizens pay and coverage they get doesn't change just because they change jobs, workers are free to pursue the best employment situations, where they can put their skills and passions to the best use. Society loses out if a young woman whose true talent is acting is stuck answering phones because she can't afford (or get) individual health coverage while she takes a year off to wait tables and audition for shows in the big city. Likewise, society loses out if a great carpenter is stuck working on an assembly line because he can't afford to quit and take COBRA while he gets his own business off the ground.
The young woman I visited with isn't looking for a handout. She's doing everything we tell her to: work hard, take a chance, pursue your dreams. But our private health insurance system is telling her "Don't you dare." It's keeping her and lots of other graduates from the freedom that America promises.
Public health insurance—now there's a graduation gift from which we all could benefit.
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