Health issues

Emory University will soon require students to carry health insurance

Four years ago, during her freshman year at Emory, Melissa Cheung needed chest X-rays to confirm a case of pneumonia. A native New Yorker, Cheung had opted for Emory's student health insurance plan for that school year because her parents' insurance didn't offer out-of-state coverage.

Weeks after getting the X-rays, however, Cheung was surprised to receive an invoice for $120. The Emory plan covered less than half her bill.

"Emory didn't pick up as much as a regular insurer would have," she says. "The plan turned out to be really bad."

Though health insurance wasn't mandatory for undergrads at the time, Cheung had gone ahead and bought into the school's plan, which cost less than $1,000 for the year. But when her family switched insurance carriers the next year to one that offered out-of-state coverage for dependents, Cheung dropped her Emory insurance.

Now a first-year graduate student in Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, Cheung says she's relieved to still be on her parents' plan, because Emory will be requiring students in the Rollins school to carry health insurance — if not their own, then through the school — starting in fall 2005. Of Emory's 12 schools, only the school of medicine, graduate school of arts and sciences, and nursing school currently require students to have health insurance.

What's more, the university plans to require all undergrads to have health insurance beginning in fall 2006.

That seems reasonable enough given that, of the 20 top colleges named by U.S. News and World Report, Emory is the only one that doesn't require its students to have health insurance, according to Michael Huey, executive director of Emory's Student Health Services. He estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of Emory students are uninsured.

Some students, however — especially those who can no longer claim dependence under their parents — say health insurance is an unnecessary expense and shouldn't be mandated unless it's included in tuition fees. The projected $1,500 annual cost for the student health insurance plan, though it pales in comparison to Emory's $30,000-plus annual tuition, could have a negative impact on scholarship and financial aid recipients, some students fear.

"Most people our age don't feel like they'll get sick, so why should they pay for something they probably won't use," Cheung says. "If students are already taking out loans to pay tuition, required insurance on top of that is another financial burden."

Others worry Emory's plan won't be comprehensive enough and therefore won't really benefit them, as Cheung found during her first year as an undergrad.

"I'm in favor of it because it's an important issue," says Rollins student Jennifer French. "But they've got to make it affordable and reliable, or else it's pointless."

Kimberly Taylor, insurance coordinator for Emory's Student Health Services, says the current plan — offered through Aetna at an annual cost of $1,448 — allows students to pay their premiums in monthly increments. The plan covers 100 percent of medical expenses at Student Health Services, while uninsured students or those with private insurance only get initial exams covered. Outside of Health Services, 80 percent of expenses inside the Aetna network are covered on Emory's plan.

Taylor says she's familiar with criticisms of mandated health insurance. But she points out that without insurance, a typical gynecologist exam might cost $700, while it would be covered in full on Emory's plan and at least partially covered on private plans.

Although the details have yet to be worked out, Taylor says insurance costs won't be included in tuition. And she's confident that tuition won't increase as a result of the cost of required insurance.

She also says that the more students who sign up for the Emory plan, the lower the premiums will be annually.

"I see people daily come in without insurance," Taylor says. "It's better to be safe than sorry."