Health Care Debate Carries Implications for College Students

While pundits in Washington, D.C., assess the effect of the Massachusetts Senate outcome on the future of health care reform, college leaders also are focusing on another stumbling block to final action: how the government will treat health plans for 3 million college students.

Many higher education leaders—including associations representing historically Black colleges and universities—say the health bill passed in the U.S. Senate may jeopardize the low-cost health insurance policies available to students on most college campuses.

While many states view these student programs as group health plans, the Senate bill may leave the door open for the federal government to regulate them as health plans for individuals. As a result, colleges say, they no longer would be able to offer the policies at a low cost.

“This would ultimately increase the premium students pay because the policies would be rated and priced with all policies sold in the individual market,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

“Increased student health insurance premiums would add to the total costs students pay to attend college,” she said, calling the bill “counterproductive” to Congress’ goals to make both college and health care more affordable.

Broad outlined higher education’s concerns in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Capitol Hill leaders. Groups signing on to the letter included the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the United Negro College Fund.

As plans that provide shorter-term coverage, student health plans are not like the traditional group health plans offered by employers. Yet the groups say Congress should clarify that these student health plans should not be rated and priced as individual policies.

“We’re trying to avoid a problem,” said Mary Hoban, program office director at the American College Health Association. “Without further clarification, these could be interpreted as individual plans.”

Lawmakers were working to bridge differences between the House and Senate health care bills before the Jan. 20 Senate election in Massachusetts that eroded Democratic control of the Senate. With his upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley, Republican Scott Brown will give the GOP 41 seats in the Senate, thereby ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.

Under Senate rules, the minority party can delay most major bills unless the party in control can limit such filibusters by gaining a “super-majority” of 60 votes.

For his part, President Barack Obama has signaled that, following the Brown victory, his administration may scale back its health care plans. Nonetheless, one other option under consideration in Washington was for the House of Representatives to discard its own health bill and pass the Senate measure, which then could go directly to the president’s desk.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of college students are covered under their parents’ health insurance plans, says James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va. However, many of these families take out a student health plan so their child can receive treatment on campus, he said.

Many campus health systems only accept the student health plan, which is a “frustration” for many parents, Boyle told Diverse.

If lawmakers reopen a large-scale debate on health care, he said, “I would like to see Congress mandate that college health centers accept all forms of insurance.”

But Hoban countered that such a policy would be onerous for many colleges. Since many students attend college far from their parents’ homes, postsecondary institutions would have trouble gaining reimbursements from distant insurers. “It would be difficult to participate in hundreds of insurance plans across the country,” she added.