For most Cornell students, opting out of the Student Health Plan is an afterthought, just another item on an endless list of pre-arrival summer tasks. Last year, for instance, 10,695 out of 11,224 SHP waiver applications, or 95 percent, were approved without issue. This year, however, an estimated 2000 more students than normal were denied insurance waivers, and were told to pay $2,800 for the SHP, instead of the $370 opt-out fee. Many of those students had previously secured waivers without issue, and were frustrated to find themselves owing thousands of dollars they had not planned for. Their frustration is merited — it was the University that bungled this year’s waiver process.
The explanation for the spike in waiver denials is fairly simple. In order to secure a waiver, a student must show that their personal health insurance plan meets four criteria: active in the United States, no policy maximum, active throughout the student’s academic year and reimburse coverage in Ithaca for at least 70 percent of charges. As it turns out, in previous years the University, through its contractor Gallagher Student Health, had been granting waivers for plans that didn’t actually meet the fourth criteria. That changed this year, when Gallagher finally began to audit for 70 percent coverage, causing the spike in rejections.
“So what?” you might say, “it’s not like they changed the rules! They’re just paying attention to them now!” Well, yes and no. It is perfectly reasonable for the University to set minimum requirements for students’ health coverage. In fact, it’s a good thing that they are interested in making sure every student has adequate coverage, should they need medical attention (a University committee is currently reviewing the 70 percent standard). And it’s quite alright for the University to enforce the rules that they set out.
What is inappropriate is altering the process by introducing the audit without notifying students. It is unreasonable to believe that a student whose plan had previously been accepted, and had not changed, would suddenly recognize in their junior or senior year that it had been inadequate all along. Furthermore, many students remain on their parents’ insurance plans and do not possess the technical knowledge to evaluate those plans on the basis of Cornell’s criteria.
If the University was aware that the introduction of the 70 percent coverage audit would result in an increase in waiver denials (and it most likely did, seeing as the Student Health Benefits website states that for many, “the denial comes as a surprise”), it should have clearly advertised as such, instead of burying any mention in the FAQ section.
The University cannot afford such a lack of transparency, especially when it comes to student health.