November 1, 2005

Health Insurance Proves A Pricey Challenge at C.U.

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Getting sick or injured is expensive. Doctor’s visits, medications and follow-up treatments are costly. Cornell offers what it considers to be a reasonably-priced insurance plan and insists that all undergraduates have a certain level of coverage, either through the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) or from a private provider.

But what is reasonable to some is not practical for other students here. Some students can get lost in this well-intended plan and are exposed to tremendous financial risk if they do not end up with adequate medical insurance.

“Certainly we recognize that it’s an expense,” said JoAnn Molnar, administrator of the Office of Student Health Insurance. “But we keep it affordable for the majority of the students, with benefits that benefit the student population.”

The cost of SHIP for the 2005-2006 academic year is $1,354. Although it is significantly lower than most private insurers and undeniably cheaper than paying out-of-pocket, the price can still be daunting when tacked on to a tuition bill of tens of thousands of dollars.

Sharon Dittman, associate director of university health services community relations, said adding that number to the bursar bill “feels like a door-closer” for people in tight financial situations.

“For a percentage of Cornell students, that makes them feel like they don’t have access.” The SHIP fee has increased steadily at a rate of nearly six percent over the last three years, rising from $1,059 in 2003-2004. That price covers Gannett visits, $1,200 in prescriptions, mental health services, and catastrophic events up to one million dollars. Medical care is not free after that initial fee, though. There is a $10 student visit charge at Gannett, and prescription co-pays cost $15-$30 each.

Although accusations of “nickel and diming” run rampant among students, our health insurance costs are competitive with, and sometimes better than, other Ivies like Princeton ($1,000), Harvard ($2,528) and Yale ($996, excluding prescriptions).

Financial Assistance

For some students, Dittman said, “A few hundred dollars in co-pays would be the difference between eating and not eating that week.”

When students are unable to pay the initial SHIP fee or co-pays, they are told to visit the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment. Although it is required that all students participate in either SHIP or a comparable private insurance policy, the Office of Financial Aid does not consider health insurance a mandatory fee and, therefore, is not responsible for funding it.

“It is not a required fee for all students, so it’s not included in the standard budget. We don’t have the resources to include that,” said Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis.

He said it is assumed that most students can be included on their parents’ plans throughout their undergraduate careers. If a student is having significant trouble covering medical fees, however, the Office of Financial Aid offers a “budget increase” to the standard package. That increase is given as a loan or work supplement, not as a grant.

Stephen Caulfield, chairman of The Chickering Group, the insurance broker with which Cornell works, said he “would be very surprised if coverage for health insurance was not covered by a financial aid package.”

The Office of Financial Aid does offer some straightforward funding for its most financially at-risk students. At the beginning of the year, Keane said, it contacted a group of the lowest-income students and offered to cover a limited number of co-pays for them.

When asked what the Office of Financial Aid does for students in the next financial bracket up, Keane said, “We want to be helpful, but we have to be a little careful about how wide open we make the door. There are limits to how much we can help.”

Getting Around the System – The Waiver Process

In order for students to avoid paying for SHIP, they must prove before each academic year begins that they are enrolled in another insurance plan. A short waiver form, asking for the insurer’s contact information and benefits, must be completed.

According to the Gannett website, Cornellians have over 1,700 different types of health insurance. Molnar said it is difficult to prove that students have adequate coverage. “Over the years there has been concern in the waiver process,” she said. “We are striving to try to communicate and educate people about the insurance they have.”

Molnar said the Office of Student Health Insurance audits the waiver forms and calls insurance companies to confirm coverage. It sends a checklist telling families what should be covered for students going away to college.

Keane, however, said it would be very difficult to confirm the validity of every single waiver form. “They don’t check everybody. They don’t check it out personally,” he said.

Students who claim to be covered, either because they are uninformed or because they do not want to pay the SHIP fee, can have significant problems paying their bills if they do need medical help. Out-of-pocket costs for mental health visits at private practices, for example, are often more than $100, according to Gannett’s website.

“Unless people have information, they do fall through the cracks,” Dittman said.

Motivation needed in order to get help

When the costs get too high, some are concerned that students do not know where to find aid. “You have to be a pretty good self-starter [if you need assistance],” Keane said. “It’s part of the culture of who’s here.”

Randy Lariar ’08, a member of the student assembly and chair of the Joint Assemblies Financial Aid Review Committee, agreed. “It’s a big, messy web, and very decentralized,” he said. “You need to ask, but if you look for opportunities, you’ll find them.”

Lariar was a member of the Non-Mandatory Student Fee Review, a committee that assessed the extra charges many students pay at Cornell. Health insurance was an issue covered in committee, and recommendations were brought to the administration at the end of last year.

Josh Katcher ’06, a student-elected trustee and another member of the review committee, said the administration released a formal response to its report last week. Katcher said he felt “cautious optimism” as the University said it would continue reviewing fee policies.

Two programs that are available for students who need immediate and significant assistance with medical costs are the Emergency Medical Expenses Endowment and Students Helping Students. The endowment, which consists of $15,000-$20,000 per year, is used to pay hospital bills if insurance cannot cover the full cost. That number is the total amount available, not the amount per student.

Students Helping Students, of which Lariar is chair, is another emergency fund for students with serious financial crises. Funded by one dollar of each student’s Student Activity Fee, the fund gives anonymous grants. About half of the requests they deal with are medical emergencies referred from the Office of Financial Aid, Keane said. Grants are capped at $1,000.

“If people need it, they need to know it exists,” Lariar said of emergency funding for medical issues. Students Helping Students received 40 requests for funds last year, which was a significant increase from previous years, Lariar said.

Students Helping Students was able to provide some help but, as Lariar said, “we are not a substitution for insurance.”

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor