Columns, Opinions

Liang ’19: Brown’s new health insurance disappoints

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

This summer, students received word that Brown is switching the management of its student health insurance plan to Gallagher Student Health, an insurance company that provides plans for a multitude of universities nationwide. While this might seem like a technicality, the change creates another difficult hurdle for students who are trying to figure out their own affordable coverage options for the school year.

For those who haven’t been following the minutiae of Brown’s health insurance process, here’s a quick recap: Each year, the University automatically enrolls every undergraduate in its health insurance plan, which this year costs $3,615 for coverage. Students with existing insurance (myself included) can apply to opt out of this plan, an action that is termed a “hard waiver.” These students have to fill out paperwork that proves that they have existing coverage months before the start of the actual academic year.

But when it took charge of the new health insurance plan, Gallagher made a promise that “all submitted waiver request forms will be subject to a new and more robust waiver verification.” In practice, this resulted in confusion for people who had waived their insurance in previous years. For me, this meant being rejected because, according to a formulaic email from Gallagher, “the location of your school is outside of your insurance company service area.” For a school that touts its geographic diversity and the inclusion of a variety of lived experiences, this is a pretty low blow, Brown.

The University is right to automatically enroll and try to maintain students in its plan; like the Obamacare mandate, the goal is to stabilize premiums while maintaining high-quality care for all students. But I question the University’s opaque methods, as well as its outsourcing to a new third-party company.

What some students may not know is that this insurance comes additional to the annual $950 Health Services Fee that all students are charged for regardless of insurance status. The fee funds most, if not all, of the services that students use for routine issues during college. This means that many of the benefits that Gallagher touts — including primary physician visits, EMS ambulance services, mental health counseling, certain lab tests and preventative services — are already covered for all students, as long as they are done on campus.

Gallagher and Brown argue that their coverage goes beyond the health services fee, and this is probably necessary for people without any insurance. But I am also under my parents’ extensive Kaiser Permanente plan, which covers pharmacy, urgent care, immediate surgery and emergency room visits nationwide. Which brings up the question: Exactly what are students like me paying for with this new health insurance plan? If something is not life-threatening or a day-to-day issue, I can wait to go home and see my own provider for options. If I have to deal with an immediate health issue on campus, I am already covered in Rhode Island hospitals because of my parents’ health insurance plan and with Health Services because of the Health Services Fee. Anything else is money straight into the insurer’s pockets.

Moreover, for students who do not even have insurance, the lack of knowledge and transparency is a major obstacle. Some students are unaware, for example, that there is a separate application for financial aid assistance for health insurance that is not covered in the normal aid package (out-of-state Medicaid is also not an accepted plan). And the early deadline of the waiver process, combined with the language of a “more robust waiver verification,” left families unsure all summer if their insurance — in other words, if Medicaid, Blue Shield, Kaiser and other such packages, especially those out of state — would be accepted.

In my case, my waiver was accepted for the last two years despite the fact that the policy explicitly stated that Kaiser was not comparable. But with the last-minute change in management and my unexpected waiver rejection, I am stuck in limbo this year, carrying two nearly identical plans and having to budget over $4,000 into an already exorbitant tuition cost.

At the end of the day, Gallagher is an insurance company that operates on profit margins. The entire waiving process, from the early deadlines to the confusing third-party sites, seems to be designed to make it difficult for students to opt out of their plan. A Gallagher-sponsored study titled, “Student Health: The Hidden Mission of Colleges and Universities,” even discusses the positives that universities make insurance mandatory or use hard waivers . But Brown should think twice before following this advice: Gallagher is not on our side. In fact, it heavily markets itself to colleges because students are one of its consistent sources of income. If Brown continues to choose this misguided path, it should at least work harder to clarify language and offer alternative options without lowering the level of coverage offered.

Everyone should have comprehensive insurance — that goes without saying. The important question is how to best ensure this. On a nationwide level, that means debating the Obamacare mandate and insurance marketplaces, policy changes and coverage providers. At a university level, it means starting a dialogue on the value of having one plan forced upon — and then suddenly changed on — undergraduate students. Brown is placing at least some of the responsibility of student health on a new company without student input or transparency. It can and should do better than that.

Mark Liang ’19 can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.