Between the ages of 18 and 25, young adults like myself mark several major milestones–high school and college graduation, entry into the working world, perhaps even marriage and children. In recent years, another far more frightening rite of passage has crept into the lives of millions of young people–life without health insurance.

50 percent of all Americans between 18 and 24 spent part of 2002 and 2003 uninsured, yet this age group rarely appears in the national healthcare debate. We may be young and fairly likely to stay healthy, but one poorly timed illness or accident can cripple us financially before we’ve had the chance to establish ourselves. It’s a harrowing but familiar scenario to many, including myself.

I knew that my health insurance would run out shortly after I finished college, but I couldn’t find any affordable options that provided more than catastrophic care. If the best I can get will only help in an emergency, I thought, what’s the point of having any? Faced with what was essentially a choice between insurance and food, I opted for food and hoped for the best. It was just bad luck that I got sick in January 2004, less than three weeks after my parent’s insurance stopped covering me.

I waited for over a month to visit a doctor for tests, and I only went then because I was starting to feel too sick to work. It took two more months, multiple appointments, one visit to an emergency clinic, and four rounds of antibiotics to treat the infection that I had, although none of the physicians I saw ever gave me a specific diagnosis. On at least one occasion the doctor listened to my list of symptoms and wrote a prescription without doing any tests because she said they didn’t want me to incur any unnecessary expenses.

In the end I spent nearly $3,500 on care and prescriptions between January and April, and another $1,500 in November and December when I got sick again. After struggling to avoid excessive student loans in college, I found myself with another school year’s worth of debt. In many ways I’m lucky. I didn’t need hospitalization, I don’t have a chronic condition like diabetes, and my parents helped me with some of my bills. It is a testament to how broken the American health care system that I feel fortunate to not be financial ruined after my experience.

For people who face bleaker outcomes, there are serious consequences. According to a study done in June 2004 by Families USA, of all the healthcare uninsured Americans receive, two-thirds comes from hospitals. Uninsured people are a great deal more likely to delay seeking care when they are ill, and they often end up in the emergency room for conditions that could have been treated easily at an earlier time.

This substandard care takes a heavy toll: uninsured adults are 25 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with private health insurance. With the numbers of uninsured Americans increasing, young people face the prospect of being sicker and less economically productive throughout their lives. Immense economic benefits can be gained by making sure all Americans have healthcare, somewhere between $65 and $130 billion dollars, even more significant when you take into account that the government spends approximately $30 billion annually to compensate healthcare providers for assisting the uninsured.

Current discussions about healthcare have focused on people over 65 and under 18 but have largely ignored the issues of younger Americans. Children and the elderly do require more care than younger adults; children especially should be the first to benefit from any healthcare reforms that take place. However, the generation currently entering the workforce should not have to wait until offspring or old age bring steady health insurance in the form of government sponsored programs.

A lack of health insurance is not a problem that only worries me when I feel a cold coming on or cross a busy intersection; it is a topic that comes up when I have drinks with friends, while I watch some network TV drama, while I chop vegetables for dinner. Uncertainty about the future has always been a part of being young, but now fear of medical debt is a part of the mix; it’s a scary new addition.