When a student is stressing about heading off to college, purchasing health insurance is unlikely to be a high priority. However, many colleges and universities require students to be insured before enrolling, which makes shopping for health coverage a critical affair for the majority of those attending college.
Nowadays, most colleges offer their own self-constructed student health plan as a (usually) low-cost option for prospective and enrolled students. These plans, although independent of individual market and employer-based pools, still generally qualify a college student to be considered “covered” by standards illustrated by the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Despite being impacted differently by Affordable Care Act regulations versus traditional coverage plans, student health plans are still required to meet the core coverage standards of the law, leading many colleges to transform their respective offered plans over the last several years.
We now live in an age where the Affordable Care Act is at constant risk of termination and replacement by the current Congress, leaving students nationwide questioning what is to come. Those who chose coverage through student health plans wonder what the potential effects will be on their own health insurance should the Affordable Care Act repeal become reality.
To answer this question, it may be best to consider what student health plans looked like pre-ACA, and how the reshaping of plans brought us to their current state.
Before Obamacare, university health plans gained much of their popularity through the fact that on-campus health centers would be more easily accessible by students who were covered under such plans. University plans were also generally tagged with cheap premiums because of their autonomy from individual market and employer-based insurance pools. Nonetheless, student health plans received widespread criticism for their bare-bones style of coverage, which often led to immense out-of-pocket costs for students who actually did experience serious illness or injury during their college years.
“Sixty percent of the plans out there are pure junk,” Stephen Beckley, a healthcare management consultant for colleges and universities, said in 2010, referencing student health plans.
Of course, the overarching goal of universities offering such plans was not to engineer quality coverage. Instead, its goal was to decrease the number of uninsured students when having healthcare became an increasingly popular prerequisite for enrollment. Institutions of higher education could get away with low-grade protection because of the flexibility to customize plans and because of the fact that college students are reliably young and healthy.
Following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, all student health plans were forced to adapt to the new standards for coverage. Thus, school plans have been revamped in the overall quality of coverage through the discarding of annual and lifetime caps, elimination of exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and a mandated 80 to 88 percent medical loss ratio — just to name a few changes. The extent to which any particular university was forced to adapt its own plan varied from school to school, depending on the level of coverage offered before.
Expectedly, these new guidelines came with a cost. According to a study by Hodgkins Beckley Consulting, the average cost of student health plans rose 9 percent at public universities and just under 8 percent at private universities between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
So, how exactly will those enrolled in student health plans be affected by a probable Obamacare repeal? For starters, it’s difficult to tell considering we still have no idea what a GOP replacement might look like. If essential minimum benefits in the new healthcare law are far less demanding than that of the Affordable Care Act’s, then the likely result would be that student health plans slowly fall towards becoming the bare-bones minimal protection plans they used to be. Though the Affordable Care Act’s coverage standards caused a slight uptick in the average cost of university plans, they did go to great lengths in revamping the quality of coverage that many of the plans offer.
For now, it seems that student health plans are being treated quite well by the Affordable Care Act. But, of course, the impact of the Affordable Care Act stretches far beyond college-specific healthcare. We’ll have to leave it to those in Congress to decide how student health plans will look post-Obamacare.
Jimmy L. Gao is a student at the Ohio State University.