Student health insurance: required reading

How Obamacare has improved students' health coverage options; PLUS 5 considerations when seeking coverage for new graduates

Travel Insurance
It’s graduation season, and time for the newest group of high school grads to take their next big step. For many of them, that will involve heading to college in the fall. And while there will be a long list of preparations to consider over the summer, health insurance deserves special attention.

Before Obamacare, coverage for students tended to be hit or miss. Eligibility to remain on a parent’s health plan was often contingent upon being enrolled in school full-time, and the cut-off age was typically 22.

University-sponsored health plans were widely available, but tended to have shockingly low benefit maximums. Individual health insurance was medically underwritten, creating a significant hurdle for students with pre-existing conditions. And even healthy students sometimes struggled to afford the premiums.

How ACA changed student health coverage

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, a lot has changed for students’ health insurance coverage options:

  • One of the first ACA regulations to be implemented in 2010 allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26. This applies regardless of whether they’re enrolled in school, regardless of whether they’re counted as their parents’ tax dependent, and even regardless of whether they’re married — young adults can remain on a parent’s health plan until age 26, period.
  • The ACA also made individual insurance guaranteed issue regardless of medical history, and created subsidies to make premiums affordable for low and middle-income enrollees. Eligibility to remain on a parent’s health plan or purchase student health insurance through a university does not eliminate eligibility for subsidies in the exchange.
  • The ACA called for the expansion of Medicaid, and 31 states plus the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid coverage to adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level (in 2018, that’s $16,753 in annual income for a single individual). Thus Medicaid is available for some students with limited incomes, thanks to the ACA.
  • Many universities offer student health insurance plans. These plans are now regulated by the ACA, so they cover the ten essential health benefits with no annual or lifetime benefit maximums. (Note that not all plans marketed to students are considered “student health plans” in the eyes of the law. For example, a short-term policy that’s advertised as “perfect for students” wouldn’t have to be ACA-compliant.)

Low annual and lifetime benefit maximums used to be standard on student health plans. That typically worked out, because most students are young and healthy. But it sometimes resulted in disastrous outcomes, as we saw in the highly-publicized and tragic death of Arijit Guha, an Arizona State University student whose cancer treatment maxed out his student health plan.

While the new, reformed student health plans offered by universities are dramatically better than they were in the past, it’s also true that the new plans cost more than the old ones. Prior to the ACA, some student health plans had benefit caps as low as $5,000, but only cost a few hundred dollars a year in premiums. Given the cost of healthcare, those plans were not functioning as real insurance, but rather as pre-paid health plans for relatively minor ailments.

And yet, they provided a modicum of security for students, and were very inexpensive. The inevitable result of making the plans much more robust is that their premiums are now in line with the rest of the insurance market. As a result, some schools have opted to direct students to the exchange rather than offer student health insurance.

The upside of course, is that subsidies are available in the exchanges for students who qualify based on income, and for eligible enrollees, subsidies cover a large portion of premium costs.

Student health plans: Individual market coverage, but with some regulatory exceptions

University-sponsored student health plans were given some leeway in terms of compliance: they didn’t have to begin meeting the ACA’s medical loss ratio (MLR) requirements until 2013, and their annual benefit limits were allowed to be much lower than plans in the individual market until the end of 2013. But since January 1, 2014, new student health plans have been required to cover the essential health benefits with no dollar limits on annual or lifetime benefits.

And in the 2019 Benefit and Payment Parameters, HHS finalized regulations that exempt student health plans (which are technically considered individual market plans) from the federal rate review requirements that apply to other plans in the individual market. This takes effect as of July 2018, so it will apply to plans that students can enroll in for the fall 2018 semester.

HHS has noted, correctly, that although student health plans are subject to other individual market reforms (like having to cover essential health benefits, and not capping the amount that the plan will pay for essential health benefits), the rate-setting process differs, just by the nature of the product. Student health plans are only available to registered students and their dependents, and universities have the sort of leverage that a large employer would have when negotiating with an insurer. So the rate review process that applies in the individual market (where policies are marketed to individual buyers, who don’t have leveraging power beyond regular market competition) isn’t as necessary for student health plans.

5 coverage considerations

Clearly, students have a lot more coverage options as a result of the ACA. But how do you decide which option is best?

1. Is a parent’s plan more affordable?

If the parents’ group health insurance plan includes additional children and the parent works for a large employer, the payroll-deducted premium is likely the “family” rate, and it won’t go down if one child is removed from the plan. In that case, staying on a parent’s plan might be the best alternative, since there would be additional premiums associated with a university-sponsored plan or coverage purchased in the individual market.

2. Studying out of state?

If the student will attend college in another state, network restrictions on the family plan could result in little or no access to healthcare where the student will be living. In that case, it probably makes more sense to get a new health plan – either in the exchange or through the university – that includes providers in the area where the student will be living.

If the student is eligible for Medicaid, it’s important to double-check the eligibility rules for Medicaid in the student’s home state as well as the state where the student will be attending college. Some states have very flexible rules. For example, California allows students to qualify for Medi-Cal even if they’re only living in California temporarily to go to school, and California residents who are on Medi-Cal can keep their coverage (as long as they notify Medi-Cal) while they attend school in another state.

But other states have more restrictive guidelines for their Medicaid coverage, and Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs, which are used to provide coverage to more than three-quarters of Medicaid enrollees nationwide) can limit the scope of their provider networks, effectively limiting coverage to a local area. If you’re eligible for Medicaid and heading to an out-of-state school, check with your local Medicaid office, as well as the Medicaid office in the state where the school is located. Keep in mind that there are 19 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the ACA, so eligibility rules vary depending on the state.

3. Eligibility for exchange subsidies

If the student is a dependent on the parents’ tax return, the parents’ income is included when the eligibility determination is made for premium subsidies or Medicaid. But students who file their own taxes may qualify for significant subsidies if they’re on a limited income. Or they may qualify for Medicaid if they’re in a state that has expanded Medicaid.

4. Maternity care

The ACA allows young adults to remain on their parents’ health plan until they turn 26, and group plans with at least 15 workers have covered maternity care since the 1970s. But there is no requirement that those plans cover maternity care for dependents.

HHS clarified in 2015 that dependents must have access to preventive prenatal care with no cost-sharing, but young adults who remain on a parent’s plan may not have coverage for labor and delivery. If this is a concern, students can purchase individual coverage (on or off the exchange) or obtain student insurance through the university, as both of those options include maternity benefits.

5. Studying abroad?

Most health insurance plans generally don’t cover foreign travel. (Emergency care is often covered, although patient and insurer definitions of “emergency” aren’t always the same, and medical evacuations are rarely covered.)

But there are a plethora of travel health insurance plans available, many of which cater specifically to students. Travel plans are not regulated by the ACA, but they provide a good supplement to students’ U.S.-based health insurance during the time spent abroad.

Whether you’re heading off to college yourself, or sending your child out into the world, rest assured that there will be a health insurance plan that’s just the right fit.

Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

Find affordable health plans

Since 2008, we’ve helped more than 16 million people.

(Step 1 of 2)

Recent articles

How immigrants are getting health coverage

No family left behind by Obamacare

2019 Obamacare subsidy calculator

Related terms

essential benefits

Medicaid expansion

pre-existing condition

student health insurance