SACRAMENTO -- Cyndi Rose works full time as an administrative assistant at California State University, Sacramento, and hopes to finish her college studies one day.
The 24-year-old Carmichael resident makes $15 an hour, lives with her parents and prays she won't get sick because she can't afford health insurance.
Most of her friends, Rose said, are in the same bind. Nearly a third of Californians from ages 20 to 29 don't have insurance, the biggest share of any demographic group, according to the California Health Interview Survey, conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Critics call them "young invincibles" or "young immortals," daredevils more interested in spending money on the latest electronic gadgets than insuring themselves against calamity.
But health care advocates say as fewer employers offer job- based insurance, the main ob- stacle to coverage is affordable health care. They note young people starting their careers now face a changed job mar- ket, with increased reliance on temporary workers, part-time workers, subcontractors and extended probation periods.
Rose dropped out of UC Davis a year shy of a degree when money ran out. Now a tem- porary worker in the student affairs office at Sacramento State, she's not eligible for employer-based health insur- ance.
Until she turned 24, Rose was insured through her parents' policy. She inquired about buying an individual policy but concluded the high-deductible, limited plans on the market weren't worth the price, more than $100 a month.
"What's the point if I could never see a doctor unless I was dying?" she said. "Like the majority of my friends, it comes down to whether we want to keep our cars from being re- possessed and paying down high-interest credit cards."
Mandate to buy lacks support
According to the California Health Interview Survey, three out of four uninsured employees work for an employer that does not offer coverage or are not eligible for their employer's health plans.
Gov. Schwarzenegger's health plan -- scheduled to get its first hearing Wednesday by the Assembly Health Committee -- would require individuals to purchase health insurance and would provide subsidies for the poor.
Democrats, who control the Legislature, oppose the indivi-dual mandate and contend the subsidies proposed by the governor would not be sufficient for many low- and middle-income families.
While most uninsured young adults are comparatively healthy, some -- such as Robert Heredia -- have medical needs that they can't afford.
Heredia, 19, works 30 hours a week making minimum wage as a busboy at Centro Cocina Mexicana, a Sacramento restaurant, and attends Sacramento City College off and on.
He suffers from cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscles become inflamed and malfunction. Heredia has been uninsured since he turned 19, the age limit for the state's Healthy Families program.
Because he can't afford regular medical care, the emergency room at Sutter General Hospital has become his doctor of last resort.
By federal law, emergency rooms must treat everyone who comes through their doors and have become primary caregivers for a large percentage of the 6.7 million people without insurance in California.
Three times since January, Heredia has been rushed to the emergency room with stabbing chest pain and gasping for air. The last time, he had to leave work while spitting up blood.
"I wish I could get regular treatment, but there's no way we could afford it," said Heredia, who lives in South Sacramento with his family. "It's just something I'll have to live with."
Education once provided a road to better jobs with medical coverage. But nationwide, two of every five college graduates will become uninsured in the year after leaving school, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan think tank.
Insurers try to woo market
Peter Harbage, a health care consultant with the New America Foundation, said the challenge for insurers is developing a product line that's affordable for young adults without job-based insurance.
"You want this population to have coverage, but you have to ask yourself, 'What do they really need?' because they are, in fact, healthier, and 'What can they actually afford?' So there's a lot of tension there."
As employers cut back on purchases of group policies, insurers are competing to sell no-frills health plans to this generation.
Chris Ohman, chief executive officer of the California Association of Health Plans, which represents private and public health plans, said young adults should consider their future.
"It's always been a challenge for insurance companies to get young, healthy adults to buy individual policies," Ohman said. "But this is a group that needs financial protection because you don't want a broken bone or trip to a doctor to break the bank account."
Ohman said a provision in the governor's plan, which would require insurers to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions, cannot be implemented without requiring everyone to buy coverage.
"You need to have a lot of healthy people paying into an (insurance) pool so that you can cover sick people," Ohman said.
Cost of 1 illness life-changing
Anthony Wright, director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy coalition, said the governor's plan does not provide enough subsidies or coverage benefits to attract young adults with low incomes.
"Some people think the reason this group doesn't have insurance is because, 'Oh, they're immortal. Oh, they're invincible,' " Wright said. "It's because they don't have the money."
Jacqueline Kelly, 21, wishes she had the wherewithal. The Winters resident dropped out of part-time studies at Southern Oregon University, $20,000 in debt, after having an emergency appendectomy.
In September, three days before she was to resume her education at San Francisco State University, she was abducted while waiting for a bus in the city and beaten unconscious.
She still suffers from severe neck and back injuries, but she has been told she will be com-pensated by California's Victims Compensation Fund.
"I almost don't want to accept the money," said Kelly, who spent three days at San Francisco General Hospital. "I can't believe I had to go through this to get help."