Since 2008, the price of Cornell’s Student Health Insurance Plan has surged 25 percent due to new federal guidelines for student health care and a jump in service requests from people enrolled in SHIP, according to Cornell administrators.
The recent increase, however, may only mark the beginning of a steep rise in student health care costs, according to Gannett officials who said they are concerned about the implications of the predicted trend.
Although now priced at $1,898 — up from $1514 three years ago — officials said that the price of SHIP will continue to rise as the main factors driving the recent increase accelerate. The program currently enrolls 10,500 students.
Stricter Federal and State Guidelines
As guidelines for student health care set by the American College Health Association have become more stringent, Cornell expanded SHIP’s coverage to meet the new requirements, driving its cost up.
Services added to SHIP this year included sexual health screening, immunizations, physical exams and other preventive care and services recommended by ACHA, said Valerie Lyon, associate director of business and finance at Gannett.
Additionally, SHIP now covers transgender surgery — which Lyon linked to mental health in the college-age demographic — though she noted that there would be “no impact on the plan in terms of cost since so few students take advantage of this.”
Lyon said that, under the new guidelines, student health insurance includes preemptive coverage, rather than just coverage in the event of an emergency.
“We’re moving from a traditional accident-illness plan to adding preventive care, which is a new requirement in accordance with American College Health Association recommendations,” Lyon said.
Allen Bova, director of Cornell’s Office of Risk Management and a representative of the Student Insurance Advisory Committee, said that Cornell must either comply with new federal standards being set by the Affordable Care Act or stop offering its own plan altogether.
“We’re seeing what’s happening on the national scene. A lot of schools with lower quality plans are making decisions once the time gets closer to fulfill compliance to drop their health care plans altogether … but Cornell isn’t going to be one of them,” he said.
A Surge in Service Requests
Although enrollment in SHIP has remained fairly constant, the number of claims made under the plan — the per capita use of services — has increased, meaning students are accessing more services through the plan, Bova said. The increased use of services, in turn, drives up the cost of the program, and therefore the cost of enrolling in the plan, he said.
SHIP enrolls approximately 10,500 students, including 30 to 35 percent of Cornell undergraduates and the majority of international students and graduate students, according to Lyon. The University requires all full-time students to have health insurance either from SHIP or an alternate plan.
Because the number of claims made under SHIP has increased from year to year while enrollment has stayed steady, its insurance company, Aetna Student Health, is spending more money on coverage. This drives up the cost of SHIP.
Despite rising costs, Bova said he did not anticipate students being deterred from enrolling in SHIP.
“We’re seeing more families recognize that this is a high quality plan that provides a lot of good coverage while [students] are at school, as opposed to a family plan which provides comprehensive coverage only in their home state … and doesn’t really respond in Ithaca as well,” Bova said.
Other administrators and student representatives, however, expressed concern about students finding adequate health care while facing increasingly expensive insurance rates.
Lyon recalled a student who needed to return home to consult with an orthopedic specialist because his family’s health insurance did not cover visits to a local specialist. Rather than enroll in SHIP, some students opt out of the plan and encounter unexpected difficulties receiving medical care, she said.
“When you’re here at Cornell and you’re very busy academically, the disruption of having to think about arranging to go home is a really big barrier. Most people don’t think about their health insurance until they need to use it,” she said.
Roneal Desai ’13, minority liaison at large for the Student Assembly, worried that low income students struggle to find affordable health care because the University does not include health insurance in its financial aid.
Federal work study students are expected to make $1,800 from an on-campus job, earn an average of $3,000 per year during vacations and raise an additional $1,898 for SHIP if they do not find an alternative health insurance plan, he said.
“Money is tight everywhere and I don’t foresee any changes in financial aid,” Desai said. Because adding health insurance to financial aid would require Cornell to approve a “reallocation of money” — decreasing funds for one group of students to support health coverage for another group of students — Desai said the situation poses ethical questions.
“Ideally, tuition should cover [health insurance for] students receiving full aid who aren’t under SHIP,” he said, noting that other schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania, factor student health insurance into their financial aid packages.
Lyon said she favors a system in which students pay health fees as part of their tuition, allowing them to access medical care on campus regardless of their insurance plans.
“In the best situation, there would be equal access to services,” she said. “Right now, preventive care is only for people on SHIP at Gannett — we still need to provide for others. Health and well-being are key for students.”