It’s the beginning of a new college semester. Paid the tuition? Check. Paid dorm room and board or apartment rent? Check. Purchased textbooks? Check. Purchased mandatory health insurance? Huh?
A friend alerted us to the fact that California University of Pennsylvania, one of the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), instituted a few years ago a mandate that requires students to have health insurance. According to the school’s website, “All full-time main-campus undergraduate students, all international students, and all NCAA athletes attending California University of Pennsylvania must enroll in or waive out of the insurance coverage offered through the University. All students providing verifiable proof of comparable coverage may waive the purchase of the sponsored plan. If a student does not provide the necessary proof or enroll in one of two plans offered by the University, they [sic] will be automatically enrolled in the University plan. Their student account will be billed for the first installment amount and a hold will be placed on their opportunity to register for future classes. In order to release the hold, students will be required to submit payment for the first installment. The second installment amount will be automatically billed prior to the start of the spring semester. Waivers received after the first month of each semester will incur a financial penalty and may not be accepted.” Highmark, Inc. is the University’s insurer.
California University of Pennsylvania is the only PASSHE institution to have such a requirement. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a spokeswoman for the state system said mandatory coverage “is not a system issue.” We discovered that some schools in the system may have limited requirements but not a blanket mandate.
Why, then, does Cal U have such a stringent requirement? The website explains, “The importance of health care for matriculated higher education students has become an integral part of a student’s academic and extracurricular success. The 2002 Health of College Students Study funded by the Heinz Family Philanthropies and the Chickering Group shows that students without medical insurance have a lower graduation rate than students with medical insurance.
“At the same time, access to health care has become problematic. Students who do not have health insurance may not seek or could be denied proper medical care for their illnesses and injuries. Increasingly, students begin their University career with a chronic or maintenance diagnosis that needs continued care. Finally, students adjusting to the independence that comes from entering the University environment trends [sic] towards riskier behaviors that could increase their chance of an illness or injury.”
It is possible, however, that students covered under the University plan may still refrain from seeking treatment because the deductible, though modest, may be too much for the student’s pocketbook.
The Cal U website directed questions about the insurance mandate to Hulse QM, the plan administrator. We put some of our questions to Donna Norris, president of Hulse Quality Management Services, Inc. Hulse QM receives a fee from Cal U to administer the plan. The company administers health insurance plans for ten schools in three states. Some of what we discovered was not surprising, but there were some eye-openers.
Just as you’d expect, 85-90% of students are covered by their parents’ health insurance and qualify for waivers. These are primarily the traditional 18-22 year-old students. Students in that age group whose parents are unemployed or do not have coverage will need the University plan. So, too, will non-traditional older students with no other coverage.
We were surprised to learn that mandated health insurance coverage for university students has been around for decades. About 60% of universities across the country have mandates in place, and PASSHE is one of the few state systems that does not, according to Ms. Norris.
As with any health care coverage, cost is a concern. The lower priced, fairly comprehensive Highmark plan is $1745 a year, with a modest deductible. There are no restrictions due to pre-existing conditions. It is pretty reasonable as health care coverage goes, but keep in mind that the population covered is generally young and less expensive to insure. And they often have little or no income, so even reasonable rates may be challenging for some students.
It is a good thing for college students to have health care coverage, and the Cal U plan sounds better than some plans out there. But it still may strain the finances of the often jobless college population.
So what options do Cal U students and other students with mandated coverage have? One is to check out other PASSHE universities that do not have mandates. It may be best for their wallets even if it is not in their health care interests.
In addition, it is important that students or anyone else who believes that health care is a right and not a privilege endorse single-payer (improved Medicare for all) legislation. In Pennsylvania, we encourage you to support the PA Family and Business Health Care Security Act (SB400/HB1660). The cost is affordable and the coverage is comprehensive. Please become part of this movement.
Remember, the effort to enact single-payer health care legislation is a marathon, not a sprint. Like all worthwhile movements, it requires commitment to see it through. Please join Health Care for All PA to become part of our team.
Covering college students may be a valid goal, but covering everyone is a better and more economical solution.