February 11, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Changes in Cornell’s Health Insurance Requirement Warrant a Warning

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Current full-time students at Cornell must be enrolled in a health insurance plan that provides in-network coverage at the Cayuga Medical Center, which is the only hospital in Ithaca. However, Cornell’s Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee determined that beginning on May 1, 2019, full-time students may satisfy health insurance coverage with a plan that does not include CMC as an in-network provider.

One of the main reasons for this change is that over 20 percent of Cornell students have coverage offered by UnitedHealthcare, which does not work with CMC as an in-network provider. Instead of requiring thousands of students to change insurance provider to gain access to CMC as an in-network provider, SHBAC is going to “encourage” all full-time students to have in-network coverage at CMC, according to the Student Health Benefits website.

The new health insurance requirement is controversial because there is no obvious solution. On the one hand, the point of health insurance coverage is to be financially protected from unforeseen circumstances. Given that CMC is the only hospital in Ithaca, it seems reasonable to require students to have access to the hospital in case of an emergency. On the other hand, shopping for health insurance may be prohibitively costly for students, many of whom are covered under their parents’ UnitedHealthcare plans. In addition, many students lack experience assessing the level of optimal coverage or comparing their options among various health insurance plans. What should be the optimal coinsurance rate for the age group that insurance companies call “invincible”? What is a reasonable out-of-pocket limit? Is a $2,000 deductible too high?

SHBAC says that university administrators are working with CMC to extend coverage for students with UnitedHealthcare. This is perhaps the ideal solution in the long run for students at Cornell. Until then, what should you do if CMC is an out-of-network provider? It would be ideal to first check what your insurance plan covers. Many plans may have higher coinsurance, copayments and deductibles but otherwise protect the insured from catastrophic incidents. Paying an out-of-network rate may not be significantly different from having CMC as an in-network provider depending on the insurance plan.

If your out-of-network coverage seems inadequate based on your individual circumstances and medical history, it may be worth considering enrolling in a plan that works with CMC as an in-network provider. Cornell’s Student Health Plan, which may be a considerable expense for many students, provides a platinum-level coverage (the most comprehensive coverage level) at a much more affordable rate than similar plans offered at the New York State of Health marketplace. Also, your family may review whether there are additional options through employer-sponsored plans.

Selecting health insurance can be complicated, but a robust health insurance requirement should exist even for a seemingly invincible group of college students. Meanwhile, we should continue to support SHBAC’s efforts to work with CMC to improve coverage for all Cornellians.

Kiefer Ahn ’14, M.S. ’18 is a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].