New health insurance covers catastrophes

By Anna Waugh

In light of a nation-wide coverage gap affecting college students who take a leave of absence for health related issues, Macalester recently switched to a new health insurance provider with more expansive coverage. Currently, the issue is central to a bill before congress dealing with insurance coverage for college students. Macalester’s decision followed by only a few months a bill that Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., introduced to Congress that, if passed, would ensure health insurance coverage for university students with long-term illnesses. The bill would close an existing loophole that allows insurance companies to deny coverage to students who take a medical leave of absence.

Since the majority of Macalester students choose to remain on their family’s insurance plan and opt out of the school’s coverage, individual plans vary from student to student. Most insurance companies allow students to stay under the protection of their families’ policy for a certain number of years, but only if they maintain a full course load.

A problem arises, however, when students take a leave of absence because of a medical condition. In taking time off, they lose their status as full-time students, and potentially forfeit their access to health insurance when it is needed most. In most states, including Minnesota, no provision exists for students who wish to take a leave of absence and remain on their family’s insurance plan.

If it is passed, H.R. 2851, dubbed “Michelle’s law,” would change that.

The bill was first introduced in the New Hampshire legislature in 2005, and dubbed Michelle’s Law after Michelle Morse, a student at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H., was diagnosed with colon cancer. Morse’s doctors had strongly recommended that she take time off from classes while undergoing chemotherapy. However, the prohibitive costs of paying for her own health insurance forced her to maintain a full course load during her treatment in order to stay on her family’s plan. Morse died in November 2006.

Fortunately for Macalester students who opt for the school’s insurance coverage, they will not face the same life-threatening decision.

Denise Ward, the Director of Winton Health Services, said Macalester has done a lot in the past five years to ensure that all students are adequately covered, whether they are currently taking classes or not.

Macalester switched at the beginning of this year from the Markel insurance company to Chickering, a subsidiary of Aetna insurance in part to extend coverage to students on medical leave. The plan, which costs $405 per year, provides coverage from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31 of the following year, whether or not the student maintains official student status throughout the year. This means that if a student takes a medical leave of absence, he or she would stay covered through the end of the summer.

In addition, there are many services now covered through the school’s insurance plan that were not previously, including wisdom teeth removal and up to 30 off-campus mental health appointments. The plan also covers birth control and other prescriptions, which students receive at 80 percent of the full price.

Chickering is also exploring the possibility of extending temporary insurance coverage to graduating seniors.

The new plan also drastically reduces how long students must wait to be treated for illnesses contracted prior to entering college. Under the old plan, students had to wait a full year. Now they only have to wait six months. Mental health conditions are exempt completely, and an entering student can be treated immediately for a mental health condition.

Sue Rothenbacher, the health services executive assistant, said that she was very excited about the switch and that Chickering offered the best coverage at the lowest cost of all considered companies. She also said that the extensive survey required for students intending to waive Chickering’s coverage would be revised for next year.

The plan is required for all Macalester students who are not covered under their family’s plan. The plan also offers coverage to part-time students.