Millennials and the Health Care Crisis of Chronic Conditions

Americans aged 27 to 42 are seeking medical care for chronic conditions in far higher numbers than previous generations
Nurse checks the blood pressure of a young female patient

An apple a day may no longer keep the doctor away.

Millennials experience chronic health conditions at a significant rate, utilizing a disproportionate percentage of medical services compared to their predecessors, according to a 2023 study conducted by UnitedHealth Group and the not-for-profit Health Action Council.

The study compared April 2021 to March 2022 health insurance claims from millennial heads of households (born from 1981 to 1996) against other age groups and historical data dating back to 2012, evaluating data from 126,000 United Healthcare millennial policyholders.

"As compared to other age groups, [millennials] and their children are high utilizers of the health care system," researchers stated in the white paper that published the results of the study.

Health issues in millennial households are often common and chronic, according to the study, ranging from behavioral health disorders, like anxiety and depression, to physical ailments, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Behavioral health driving increased care costs

Behavioral health is a major area of higher health care utilization, where millennials have proven 35% more likely to seek mental health support for themselves or for their children. Anxiety, depression and trauma disorders comprise 66% of referenced behavioral health issues.

Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act mandates that mental health care be covered by most insurance policies, so millennials can get access to treatment for both themselves and their kids. In fact, pediatric behavioral health treatments have risen as well, particularly compared to previous generations.

Inpatient admissions for mental distress-related issues increased by 61% over the past five years, said Dan Gardner, vice president of employer solutions for Optum (within the UnitedHealth Group) and a participant with the Health Action Council since 2019.

Of course, not all utilization represents a decline in overall health. Mental health treatment for anxiety and depression, for example, is significantly destigmatized these days compared to previous eras, and many individuals no longer see medical intervention as a socially jeopardizing event.

Chronic conditions and family planning adds to financial burden

The top clinical cost for millennial households is pregnancy, accounting for 21% of employers’ expenses per member per month (PMPM). Compared to previous generations, the average millennial household pays $770 per month for pregnancy-related medical spend, up 14% compared to Gen Xers (those born from 1965 to 1980) and 1% higher than Gen Zers (those born from 1997 to 2012) based on utilization rates.

Nearly half of all pregnancies (48.9%) that reached catastrophic cost rates exceeding $100,000 were experienced by millennial mothers, while 17% of Health Action Council’s members of peak child-bearing age sought fertility treatments. Race was also a factor: Black, Hispanic and Asian mothers disproportionately needed more medical prenatal and postpartum care than their Caucasian counterparts.

Chronic conditions are also taking a toll on millennials’ health — and wallets. Data showed that millennials seek hospital care for diabetes complications 106% more often than their Gen X counterparts, while patients with hypertension and obesity are, respectively, 55% and 31% more likely to seek urgent care or emergency room intervention.

And millennials’ reliance on doctors trickles down — Generation Alpha children (born since 2013) to millennial parents average 38% more health care utilization than children born to previous generations.

High medical costs can have big impact on millennial finances

Higher medical utilization rates impact finances on all fronts. The study showed that many millennials were likely to choose the health insurance plan that least impacted their paychecks on the front end; however, these policies often came with higher copays and deductibles that impact their finances on the back end. As a result, the research showed that millennials likely pay a significantly higher portion of their paychecks toward health care expenses than their Gen X and baby boomer (those born from 1946 to 1964) counterparts did at the same age.

As millennials age, it remains to be seen whether their health care requirements will improve or require more robust care. The study primarily focused on what employers can do to mitigate costs associated with employee health needs, but millennials themselves will do well to learn from the data provided. Health insurance premiums, for instance, go up as you age, so proactive millennials can take steps to improve their health now and avoid pricey medical bills down the road.

Outside of a healthy lifestyle, another way millennials can protect their future finances is by focusing on employers who offer generous health insurance policies with low copays and annual deductibles.

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