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Hot on Campus | September 11, 2012

Unaffordable care

Health

Many students are paying more for insurance coverage now that provisions in the Affordable Care Act have gone into effect

@iStockPhoto/Steve Shepard

Last year, Robert Jinks paid only $308 for health insurance at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa. Jinks pays for tuition, and health insurance coverage, mostly on his own. This year, paying his bills will be much more challenging, after Geneva's health insurance premiums climbed to $928.

"It was a big shock when I received my bill and realized that the price had tripled," Jinks said.

Despite the promise inherent in its name, the 2010 Affordable Care Act healthcare reform package isn't actually making healthcare affordable. Thousands of college students who rely on insurance plans provided by their schools are paying more for coverage this year. And costs are only expected to rise as additional provisions in the legislation take effect during the next few years.

After the healthcare reforms took effect on Aug. 1, student health plan costs rose by as much as 1,000 percent on some campuses. Small, private colleges have seen some of the highest increases because the legislation prohibits them from capping insurance payouts, a tool many used previously to keep costs down. For the 2012-13 school year, the law prohibits caps under $100,000. In the 2013-14 school year, the law will prohibit caps under $500,000. Caps will be banned altogether after 2014.

Colleges that once offered cheaper plans with limited coverage will no longer be able to do so. Without the payout caps, insurance companies are forced to increase their prices in order to protect themselves from potential losses.

"I wish that there were different levels of insurance that I could choose from," Jinks said. "They only offer the one extensive plan, but I really don't need that kind of coverage right now."

Several Christian colleges have dropped their insurance plans altogether in order to avoid the legislative mandate for contraceptive coverage included in the healthcare reform package. Other schools continue to offer insurance plans under a one-year opt out option, or through other loopholes, to keep the costs down.

Corban University, a non-denominational Christian college in Tacoma, Wa., is one school that found a loophole.

"Our insurance company was able to avoid changes by having us sign the contract before the deadline, enabling us to maintain the same coverage and price as the past few years," said Janie Vohland, the school's campus nurse.

But, Corban's plan will only cover students from Aug.12 to March 31, at least a month shy of the end of the spring semester. In the past, the school had offered coverage for a full year.

Even though they aren't yet required to cover contraceptives, some colleges that chose to take the one one-year exemption from the mandate still saw dramatic cost increases. Geneva College had offered a limited benefit plan to the students in previous years, but under the new mandate the school has been forced to raise insurance prices.

"At Geneva, our previous plan was a very basic plan that helped students to have health care for relatively minor health needs and excluded catastrophic losses, [but] the new law goes much further in requiring insurance plans to cover at least $100,000 worth of claims," said Cheryl Johnston, director of marketing services and public relations.

Although many institutions dropped their insurance plans or raised the price of coverage, most schools, including Geneva, still require all students to have a health insurance plan. Students who don't have coverage through their parents' insurance can purchase plans through the school or directly from an insurance company. Students who can't show proof of insurance will be billed automatically for the school's plan.

As schools have struggled with rising costs for the 2012-13 year, they must also look toward the future and make decisions about what to do next year, when the exemption for contraceptive coverage expires.

"We are trusting Obamacare will be repealed with a change in leadership," Vohland said of Corban University's strategy. "If not, we will make our decision then."

Geneva is one of 11 schools that filed suit challenging the contraceptive mandate. School officials hope that if the November election doesn't produce a change in the healthcare legislation, the courts will strike the mandate down next year.

"Our position has not changed," said Kenneth Smith, Geneva's president. "We will continue to resist paying for insurance that forces us to cover treatments or medications to which we object on religious grounds."

If insurance prices continue to rise, or if more schools cease to offer insurance plans, the escalating strain will not only affect students, but their parents as well.

If Geneva no longer offers an insurance plan next year, or if the price rises even more, Jinks said he would be forced to rely on his parents for help to cover the cost, or be added onto their insurance plan, another expensive option.