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Twenty-somethings report better health and lower medical expenses under Obamacare

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Young adults who gained coverage through Obamacare were more likely to report being in excellent health, according to a new research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association published Tuesday.

But this didn't necessarily reflect the newly-insured — the under 26-year-olds who have been eligible to stay on their parents' plans since 2010 — going to the doctor more. The same paper shows no uptick in medical care use in the same population.

The new rule did have significant financial effects, though: for the health care that 19- to 25-year olds did use, annual out-of-pocket health expenses — small to begin with — declined by 18 percent, on average.

Compared to slightly older adults who can't stay on their parents' coverage, those aged 19 to 25 saw insurance coverage tick upward 7.2 percentage points after the under-26 rule kicked in. The probability of reporting excellent physical health climbed by 6.2 percentage points, and the probability of reporting excellent mental health went up by 4 percentage points.

Here's the catch: insurance coverage didn't have a significant effect on how much health care young adults used. Even though young adults who benefited from the law report feeling better, that doesn't seem to be the result of showing up at the doctor anymore than they did before Obamacare.

On its face, this isn't a terribly surprising finding: twenty-somethings tend to be a healthy bunch. Aside from an annual physical — which may not actually be very useful — most young adults probably don't need to visit the doctor very often.

So how does the better-reported health care square with no increase in doctor visits? According to the authors, their findings suggest that, in the short run, "insurance may improve peace of mind and perceptions of health."

The study only looked at one year of data after young adults, though, which makes long-term predictions difficult. It's possible that young adults take longer to ramp up doctor visits, or that other benefits from insurance take more than a year to materialize.