The student’s guide to affordable health care

College students in America face particular challenges in paying for health insurance, and consequently are more likely to be uninsured than any other segment of the population. Experts estimate that between 10% and 20% of the uninsured are college students aged 18 to 24. This substantial chunk of the citizenry is taking enormous risk; students who experience illness or injury can rack up enormous debt before they ever earn a salary, and uninsured students don’t receive preventive care that can discover and treat many illnesses in their early stages.

Fortunately, the massive healthcare reform underway in the U.S. pays special attention to this high-risk age group. One of the earliest provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowed parents to continue carrying students up to age 26 on a family health plan. Other provisions, such as the removal of pre-existing condition clauses and the expansion of Medicaid, eliminated some of the barriers students face when purchasing health insurance.

Students who attend college online may find that online-only schools don’t offer their students health insurance plans. While this is largely true of exclusively online schools, hybrid degree programs tied to a brick-and-mortar campus often allow online students to purchase a student health plan. These plans are offered by the school, usually in partnership with one or more health insurance providers.

The ACA’s Impact on Students

Newer mandates of the ACA, effective Jan. 1, 2014, require campus insurance plans to contain more comprehensive benefits. While campus plans may have previously covered catastrophic events or had uncomfortably high deductibles, offerings are now aligned with ACA mandates. All student health plans must contain essential benefits, defined by the ACA as:

  •  Hospitalization
  •  ER services
  •  Maternity, newborn and pediatric care
  •  Lab services
  •  Ambulatory patient services
  •  Rehabilitative services and equipment
  •  Prescriptions
  •  Behavioral health and substance abuse treatment
  •  Preventive services and chronic illness management

Within the framework of these essential benefits, student health plans offer coverage at low premiums. The cost is going up, however, as schools revise their plans to meet ACA guidelines. Currently, a private 4-year university charges about $2,200 per year for insurance. Many colleges are now automatically opting students into health plans. It’s wise to pay close attention to your tuition bill if you opt to purchase health insurance elsewhere.