Carla K. Johnson, AP

Congress voted to overhaul the health care system on a Sunday. On Monday, Patti Lawson e-mailed her employer's human resources office to ask how soon she could get her 22-year-old daughter back on her health insurance.

In about six months, the new law will allow at least 2 million young adults to be covered under their parents’ policies. These are the “millennials,” those who came of age in the new century and now are struggling to get on their feet during the worst slump since the Depression. Many can't find jobs, and many who are employed don't have health coverage from their employers.

The law will allow young adults to stay on or return to their parents' insurance until age 26. To qualify, young people must be dependents of their parents, but they don't necessarily have to live under the same roof.

Lawson, a Gettysburg College administrator in Pennsylvania, said she is hoping to get her daughter back on her health plan because her daughter has a temporary job that doesn't provide insurance. Regulations still have to be written, but here are some of the crucial specifics of the new law:

  • It applies to young adults up to their 26th birthday who don't have access to insurance through their employer.
  • The measure applies to young people away at college.
  • It will include married children but not their spouses or their kids.
  • It is unclear whether parents must wait until their health plan's next open enrollment period to sign up their uninsured older children.

Young adults who live in a different state from their parents should check to see if their parents' health plan covers medical services where they live. This is the first time the federal government has forced insurance companies to let young adults stay on their parents' policies. More than half the states already have laws that extend the age of dependent coverage. New York and New Jersey push it all the way to age 30 and 31, and would be allowed to keep those provisions.

Among other things, Health and Human Services will have to decide what constitutes a dependent, and the definition will not necessarily be the same one used by the Internal Revenue Service for tax purposes. Also, HHS will have to clear up the issue of whether young people who live far from home can stay on their parents' plans.

The law will help Jessie Edwards sleep better at night. The nurse practitioner will be able to get both her young adult children covered as dependents on her insurance. Her 23-year-old son is losing his insurance this month, and her 25-year-old daughter has been uninsured for two years.

What frightens Edwards most is the possibility of one of them getting into an accident. Pat and John Curry of Augusta, GA, have two daughters, ages 23 and 21. Without the new law, the older daughter would lose coverage on the family health plan at her next birthday.

Lawson bought her college graduate daughter, Katie Byrne, catastrophic coverage on the independent market, so she wouldn't be completely uninsured while she searches for a job with benefits. But the $100-a-month plan does not include doctor visits. Meanwhile, Lawson's 19-year-old son is still covered. Under Pennsylvania law, Lawson's employer could choose to offer coverage for dependents up to age 30, but her employer has decided not to do so. In the meantime, Lawson plans to fill an Easter basket with dental floss, medications and other health items.