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College Students Get Crash Course on New Options for Health Insurance Plans

Many will receive more comprehensive medical coverage through changes under the Affordable Care Act

sivan rosenthal
Sivan Rosenthal (at podium) with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (right). The students all attend Rutgers-New Brunswick.

Gone are the days when college students in New Jersey could meet a state mandate that they have insurance by buying bare-bones plans that offered little coverage but cost under $200.

Those plans have disappeared because they didn’t meet the minimum coverage standards set by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. This prompted community colleges and some private four-year colleges to successfully lobby the Legislature to repeal tthe state law requiring college students to have insurance.

Students are now weighing more comprehensive – but more expensive -- plans offered by colleges, as well as the plans available through the new federal health insurance marketplace.

Since the state no longer requires all students to have insurance, it is up to individual colleges to decide whether they will mandate it. The state’s public four-year universities and some private colleges -- such as Princeton -- still require their students to have medical coverage.

Students at colleges that don’t require insurance, like the state’s community colleges, must weigh available coverage against the penalty for not having insurance starting in January 2014.

On the other hand, many students have benefited from another ACA provision, which allow parents to keep their adult children on their health plans until the children turn 26.

A lack of awareness about insurance options available to students prompted a group of Rutgers University students to fan out across the three main Rutgers campuses this week, aiming to inform their classmates.

Sivan Rosenthal, a 19-year-old first-year student from Highland Park, said it was important for all students to understand how the changes in health insurance will affect them. Rosenthal, who has insurance through her parents, said few of her peers understand the importance of the changes from the ACA.

“It’s important that every young person know what their rights are and what their options are,” said Rosenthal, an intern in New Brunswick with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG). The organization held events at the New Brunswick and Camden campuses to launch its student awareness campaign.

The colleges that require insurance are offering fairly affordable plans, even if they are more expensive than they were previously.

The New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, which includes all public four-year colleges in the state except for Rutgers, foresaw the upcoming changes after the ACA was enacted, according to association spokesman Paul Shelly. Therefore, the colleges had been increasing the quality and price of their health plans for each of the past three years so that students wouldn’t feel a price shock this year.

The association’s member colleges negotiate a single insurance contract, which is currently with United Healthcare. The price for undergraduate students has risen from $350 in the 2010-2011 school year to $750 in 2011-2012, $855 in 2012-2013 and $1,050 this year. Even with the increases, the price is much lower than any plans available through the federal marketplace.

As part of this change, part-time students, who could previously buy into the colleges’ plans, are no longer able to. That’s due to a concern that only part-time students who anticipated expensive medical treatment would choose to purchase the coverage. “The cost for those who wanted it would skyrocket,” Shelly said.

Private colleges also are offering coverage, with plans ranging from slightly higher than $600 per year to roughly $1,300, with an average cost of $1,175, according to Robert Polakowski, vice president of the 14-college Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey.

Polakowski said the purpose of the state mandate repeal was to “get the institutions out of the policing business and put it at the federal level, where we think it belonged.”

“Last year (compared) to this year is apples to oranges as far as the options,” Polakowski said, noting that the coverage students receive is now much more extensive.

NJPIRG is aiming to inform 20,000 Rutgers students about their insurance options, both through pamphlets the organization has prepared and through its website.

NJPIRG advocate Jennifer Coleman said the campaign’s effect should be felt beyond the campuses, as students talk with family and friends about the ACA.

For now, any students who want to know more about the plans offered through the marketplace may have limited options, since the marketplace website, healthcare.gov, remains difficult to access. The marketplace is intended to be a one-stop shop for Americans who aren’t covered by employer health plans to buy insurance and learn whether they’re eligible for tax credits to subsidize the insurance purchase.

Rosenthal said she hopes the federal site isn’t overloaded much longer.

But she added, “Whenever a program this big is launched, the website is bound to have problems.”

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