The debate on student health insurance: Columbia is ‘staying out of it’

By Mari Devereaux and Camilla Forte

Jennifer Chavez

Unlike some colleges and universities in the city, Columbia does not provide health insurance to all students, leaving most to rely on local commercial or government-funded plans, their parents’ insurance or the school’s limited resources. These options can mean choosing between paying expensive premiums, out-of-network rates or simply going without health insurance.

When Jeffrey Barbieri, a graduate student studying creative writing, was told he had cancer in 2015, he felt “incredibly lucky” his parents’ insurance plan covered the appointment and his following cancer treatment.

However, when Barbieri turned 26 and could no longer be covered through his parents’ plan, he struggled to remain insured, and after receiving a small stipend as a teaching assistant at the college, making more than the federal poverty level, the state took away his Medicaid.

After being uninsured for 10 months, Barbieri applied for a plan under the Affordable Care Act, which he said has a high deductible and does not include dental or vision, so he could continue intermittent cancer scans.

Since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, which requires insurance companies to allow children to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26, the percentage of uninsured college students has dropped from 19.2% to 8.7% in 2016, according to the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

But a 2017 Agile Health Insurance poll revealed 72% of college students and recent graduates have a hard time finding any form of affordable coverage.

Health care at Columbia

Currently, Columbia does not offer a health insurance plan for all students.

The only options for health care available on Columbia’s website are links to Medicaid and marketplace insurance agencies in Illinois, local hospitals, clinics and sites such as WebMD and Planned Parenthood.

“Right now we’re not providing much of anything in terms of information on health care,” said Dean of Students John Pelrine. “As an institution we’re staying out of it. We’re letting students and families make their own decisions … I don’t see that changing in the near term.”

Beverly Anderson, associate dean of Student and Health Support, said while the Student Health Center, 916 S. Wabash Ave., provides simple services––testing and treatment for infections and the common cold, methods of birth control and prescriptions for some medications—it is not meant to take the place of a hospital or a health care plan.

“The Student Health Center is more like if you were going to … an outpatient clinic,” Anderson said. “Whereas, when you have insurance, there’s a provider, there’s a network, there’s a referral system involved.”

Pelrine said it is complicated for colleges to offer their own insurance plan, but before settling on one he said administrators need to take into account student needs, economic barriers and whether or not there is a high enough demand for a plan.

Neale Mahoney, professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said not providing insurance could be a “disaster” for students in the U.S. whose parents do not have health insurance or students who are above the age threshold to be covered under family plans.

At Loyola University, Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago, students are required to have adequate health insurance either through the school or their own plan.

University of Chicago students are automatically registered for an insurance plan with a $4,566 annual premium they can waive after affirming they have “comparable coverage.”

University of Illinois at Chicago students have the option to opt out of CampusCare, “a student health benefit program,” which is $673 a semester, according to the CampusCare website.

On DePaul University’s site, the health insurance page has an FAQ section and information about the Affordable Care Act as well as Advocate Health Care’s Transition Support Program, which helps students navigate the healthcare system, but the school itself does not offer a student health insurance plan.

Rylie Smedley, a senior cinema art and science and interdisciplinary documentary double major, said being covered under her father’s work plan with UnitedHealthcare helped her afford necessary equipment and insulin needed to live with diabetes.

Her coverage has provided Smedley some peace of mind during the pandemic as she has been taking necessary precautions to stay healthy because diabetics are considered high-risk for severe illness from the coronavirus.

Health care for out-of-state students

Students under their parents’ out-of-state insurance plan, or with no insurance, often pay more for health care. Many pay out-of-network rates on their parent’s insurance plan, meaning their local health care provider is not contracted with their insurance company for reimbursement at a negotiated rate.

Anup Malani, the Lee and Brena Freeman professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said this may cause students to buy into their university’s insurance network for easier access to health care services.

However, because there is no plan available for all students to buy into at Columbia, non-Illinois residents often cannot properly access affordable health care resources.

Jasmeen Vaughn, a junior multimedia photojournalism major from California, said the college should have more comprehensive services covering appointments and treatments not accessible through the Health Center.

“My medical provider is not out here, so I just have to hope nothing happens,” Vaughn said.

Health care for international students

Ayako Kanroji, a sophomore advertising art direction major from Japan, is enrolled in a mandatory insurance plan for international students—the only insurance plan offered at the college.

Clare Lake, director of International Student and Scholar Services, said international students on an exchange visitor or educational visa are enrolled in the plan during the school year, which costs about $650 per semester.

It covers services like clinic, hospital and emergency room visits, medical treatments and prescriptions, with a maximum policy benefit of $500,000 a year for health care expenses.

Kanroji said she went to a CVS walk-in clinic when she got sick during the school year, which was “fairly easy” and inexpensive.

Despite not being on campus during the pandemic, Anderson said international students still have access to health insurance in the U.S. through Columbia’s insurance provider, LewerMark.

As a possible solution to students’ overall lack of coverage, Mahoney said Columbia could extend its international insurance plan for domestic students to optionally buy into, or include coverage through financial aid packages for low-income students.

Health care for graduate students

Barbieri said Columbia offers little help for graduate students and graduate student instructors paying for tuition and health insurance, while trying to avoid debt.

“Either they don’t understand the reality of what it means to make $15,000 a year and try to maintain a level of academic rigor as well as support yourself … or they do understand and they just don’t care that we have to do this,” Barbieri said.