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Heath: Millennials — Much Is at Stake With Health Care

America’s youth have been misled about the Affordable Care Act. The law was sold as a package of consumer protections — including a guarantee that we could stay on our parents’ insurance through age 26. But millennials should be warned that the long-term consequences of this law will reach beyond the health care system and affect individual rights.

As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the law’s individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy government-approved health insurance, it will rule on the very foundational question of the limits of government power.

Millennials should consider: Fifty years from now, when judges and lawyers cite Health and Human Services v. Florida, what will this mean for our system of governance in the United States?

It could mean everything.

Let’s assume the mandate is upheld. Young people will feel an immediate effect because they are the primary target of the law’s linchpin mandate. According to the Census Bureau, young adults (ages 19 to 29) are more likely to be uninsured than other age groups and to report being in good health.

Beginning in 2014, this group will be required to buy government-approved insurance. That means they’ll face a monthly bill for something they do not want, covering services they probably won’t use. The cost will be higher than it would be absent the law because the measure limits insurers’ ability to offer different prices based on factors such as health and age. Effectively, millennials will pay to support other, older people’s health care needs.

That’s bad news for a cash-strapped generation suffering from high unemployment and high personal debt. Yet the long-term effects should be much more alarming: If the individual mandate stands, we will live in a country where, according to case law, the government has nearly unlimited power to micromanage individual behavior and compel action in the name of the public good.

Young people supported the 2010 overhaul by a 13-point margin, probably because of its stated goals: expanding insurance coverage, lowering costs and creating better access to health care for people with pre-existing conditions. 

With these goals in mind, shortsighted millennials may shrug off warnings of a too-powerful government. After all, even as the economy continues to struggle, they like the president personally. They may be content with the idea that he’s got their — and the country’s — best interests at heart.

But we have a government of laws, not of men. The men and women in power will change. Millennials should beware: Powers granted to allies in government today will be in your opponents’ hands tomorrow. Do millennials really trust that American leaders will never be tempted to use these new powers for ends they don’t support?

Mandate backers argue that the health care market is unique and that the government would never impose another such mandate in another market. But, legally speaking, it is irrelevant what government would do. Our concern should be what government could do. Upholding the mandate would ground a precedent in case law for future abuses untold.

Sadly, as the law is implemented, millennials will find that even its attractive aspects are not what they seem. By regimenting the practice of medicine, the law will discourage talented people from signing up for the long haul of medical training, exacerbating our oncoming doctor shortage. Fewer of the world’s greatest minds will come to America to debut medical innovations, and fewer companies will invest in the next round of lifesaving, life-enhancing treatments because the law strangles profits and discourages competition.

Millennials will also bear the costs. The more than 20 new taxes in the law, aimed at today’s wealthiest citizens, will actually punish tomorrow’s middle class. Moreover, it will be our lifelong struggle to repay an inherited national debt north of $15 trillion, which will be worsened by the law’s short-run, trillion-dollar price tag and long-run bankruptcy.

Yet these consequences pale in comparison to the damage this law will do to our Constitution. We cannot measure in dollars our rich inheritance of the American design for government. A limited federal government, reserved rights for the states and protected personal liberties are our greatest treasure, and these principles hang in the balance of the Supreme Court decision.

Hadley Heath is a 24-year-old policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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