Insurance Rule Puts FSU In A Class Of 1

Jun 16, 2008

Tampa Tribune–June 16, 2008

The Tampa Tribune

The freshman class at Florida State University is expected to get smaller this fall, but one statistic is expected to grow: those seeking health care coverage from the university.

FSU is the only school in the state university system that requires health insurance of all new students. No others were ready to take the plunge at a time when lawmakers were wary of asking students to dig for more cash.

That may change as the state’s 10 other public universities debate whether the benefits of such a mandate outweigh the costs to students. FSU leaders, however, say they already reached that conclusion.

By requiring health insurance, there will be fewer uninsured students dropping out because of unexpected medical bills, said Lesley Sacher, the director of FSU’s student health center.

And there will be fewer students ignoring a doctor’s referral to see specialists in critical care.

Sacher, however, doesn’t think other schools will join in her endeavor this academic year.

"Florida is in such a budget crisis, we need to know we’ve hit bottom before we start looking at other financial issues," she said.

Students have to show their family health insurance meets FSU’s demands: coverage of $250,000 a year; a provider network for care in Tallahassee; and coverage for prescriptions, pregnancies and mental health.

If they can’t, they may have to buy more coverage to meet FSU’s demands, or enroll in the university’s health plan at $1,443 a year.

That equals about 40 percent of the annual tuition and fees students pay for a public university education in Florida, and it’s why most are waiting to see how critical the need is for students before jumping in.

University of South Florida leaders, for instance, agree with FSU. Tracy Tyree, USF’s associate vice president for student affairs, says a mandatory health insurance policy reduces the dropout rate.

"We believe it has a great benefit for our students," Tyree said.

However, Tyree said, "there’s a big question mark on the cost savings."

A committee made up of health officials from the state’s universities is examining how much schools can bring down premiums if they had a statewide policy that spreads the risk among the universities’ collective student bodies.

Sacher said that FSU’s previous voluntary health plan was getting more expensive for students. Switching to a mandatory plan kept premiums lower, she said. And because health insurance is now required, students can claim that cost on their financial aid applications.

Committee members are also studying how many students are uninsured, and how that contributes to the state’s dropout rate.

The statewide debate over mandatory health insurance started last spring. Sacher told the state university system’s Board of Governors that most private schools require health insurance of students, as do a growing number of public schools.

The response from board members was mixed. They wanted more debate.

Then universities were hit with millions in budget cuts as the Florida economy soured. The board became mired in a fight for its survival after a legislative attempt to weaken its powers. And university leaders fought for all the revenue they could by lobbying for a tuition increase.

All that distracted from the health insurance debate.

Sheila McDevitt, vice chairwoman of the Board of Governors, said she "picked up a real philosophical divide" among her fellow board members.

She said she wanted to see more data on costs and uninsured students, but favored a mandatory policy when she learned how universities lack the capacity to treat students’ mental health needs.

"I am interested in doing what we can to have as much coverage to the largest number of students without impinging on people’s rights," McDevitt said.

Sacher says that 3,082 of the students new to FSU last year opted for the university’s health insurance, while 11,302 waived the coverage because they had sufficient health plans.

She says she expects that 5,000 students will choose FSU’s coverage this year. Administrators made it easier to enroll and improved communication of the policy to families, she said.

Premiums won’t increase this year. The university negotiated with its provider, Aetna, to keep costs at $1,443 for students, Sacher said.

To keep prices the same, the university didn’t enhance its benefits. Students had called for unlimited prescription coverage along with coverage for acne treatment and medication, she said. That won’t happen this year.

Meanwhile, FSU waits as the state continues its debate.

"We’re alone, but we’re not without supporters," Sacher said. "I think the other universities are watching us very carefully."