Student Insurance to Benefit from Health Care Reform, But Religious Institutions Object

The recent controversy over requiring faith-based institutions and employers to provide insurance benefits that cover contraception and abortion has a direct bearing on student health insurance policies.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act left many points of implementation and regulation to be decided by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The agency’s final decision on student health plans is likely to include the provision that birth control be offered to students at no cost.

Improvements Needed in Institutionally-Sponsored Student Insurance

While this is a controversial move for religious schools, there are many needed improvements in the works for institutionally-sponsored insurance thanks to the new health care law. Student health plans have been notorious for their low-level of protection.

Now, student insurance must adhere to the same guidelines that apply to individual insurance plans. Students will not be excluded from coverage for pre-existing conditions, and there will be no life-time limit on policy benefits, which must offer preventive care. A study conducted in New York in 2010 found that many student policies “maxed out” when just $700 in benefits had been paid.

Traditionally, students have paid too much for too little, with no coverage for common illnesses and injuries, and no protection against alcohol-related accidents or suicide attempts. Even in the face of these inequities, however, more than 3 million students rely on institutionally-sponsored insurance annually, and in some cases are required to buy the policies as a condition of their enrollment.

Practices like these will be outlawed thanks to health care reform, starting with the 2012-13 school year. As an additional benefit, when the national requirement for every citizen to carry health insurance becomes effective in 2014, student policies will qualify as acceptable coverage.

Controversial Definition of Birth Control as Preventive Care

However, the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that preventive care for women, which must be covered by individual and employer-sponsored insurance plans, includes all FDA-approved forms of birth control. The argument is simply that a planned pregnancy is safer for a woman’s health and less expensive for insurers to support with benefits.

Since student health policies are to be treated by the same standards as individual coverage, faith-based and religious schools that provide or require institutionally-sponsored health insurance will have to provide free birth control in order to comply with federal law.

The Obama administration has offered a compromise that birth control will actually be paid for by the insurers, not the religious institutions themselves, but this has not quieted the controversy, in part because the discussion has become part of the election-year rhetoric.

And, given the nature of the HHS policy, the same institutions will also be required to provide birth control to employees as a job-related health care benefit. Although the regulation will fundamentally improve the quality of insurance coverage offered, especially for students, the outcry continues and will likely escalate as the November elections draw nearer.