Approximately 2,000 colleges and universities have contracts with health insurers to offer student health plans which cover around three million American students. Students typically purchase these health plans when family coverage isn’t available or alternative plans are not affordable.
College health plans are not all the same— some are comprehensive while others offer limited benefits that can put students at risk for a flood of medical bills. How well the plans are regulated also varies widely.
Regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on February 9, 2011 would define college health plans as “individual health insurance coverage,” allowing students enrolled in such plans to receive protections similar to those created by last year’s Affordable Care Act. (The Affordable Care Act health care reforms are giving Americans greater freedom and more control over their health care decisions through new benefits and consumer protections.)
“Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, college students will have more control over their health care,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a press release issued by the Department. “This rule would ensure that these plans remain a viable, affordable option for students while guaranteeing that they are regulated consistently and offer transparent benefits to students.”
Although it’s only a proposal, the news is already considered a victory by student advocacy groups such as Young Invincibles, a national organization which represents the interests of 18 to 34 year-olds in discussions over the nation’s health care. According to the New York Times, the group issued a statement praising the proposal.
“These regulations are a big win for the millions of students on these plans and their families. We are happy to see that H.H.S. heard the voices of young people and guaranteed they will finally get the health insurance that all Americans deserve,” were the words of Aaron Smith, a co-founder and executive director of the group.
Many health insurance companies and colleges feel otherwise.
College health plans were initially exempt from many of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act because the plans were defined as "limited benefit plans,” or plans which cover a very specific population for a relatively short period of time. Groups such as the American College Health Association, a collaborative networking base of college health professionals across the nation, lobbied to make the exemption permanent.
In an August 12, 2010 letter to the White House, the American College Health Association—along with other industry organizations—argued that the law’s proposed reforms "could make it impossible for colleges and universities to offer student plans,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
Presently some college health plans only offer limited benefits with low annual dollar limits on health care. Many have limited networks of doctors and other health care providers. Despite their drawbacks, though, these health plans are the only health insurance option for millions of college students.
Should the proposed regulations take effect on January 1, 2012, college health plans could not exclude students based on pre-existing conditions or impose lifetime limits on coverage. Annual limits would have to be at least $100,000 for plans begun before September 23, 2012 and no less than $2-million thereafter.
A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office found that some college health plans excluded preventive services from coverage and some plans limited payment for benefits such as prescription drugs. In addition, plans also varied in terms of premiums and maximum benefits, with annual premiums ranging from $30 to $2,400 and maximum benefits ranging from $2,500 for each illness or injury to unlimited lifetime coverage.
It’s important to realize that the law specifies that some provisions, such as the pre-existing conditions exclusion, will be phased in. Some provisions won’t go into effect until 2014, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Even so, “It’s a big win for students,” claims Bryan A. Liang, executive director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at the California Western School of Law. “They’re going to have at least a little bit of security,” he told Inside Higher Ed.
The Department of Health and Human Services is holding a 60-day comment period on the proposal. A final ruling is expected to be issued by this spring with the rule taking effect next year, reports CNBC.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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