New student health insurance policy a costly surprise


Photo courtesy of Rhodes College.

Alice Berry '21, Editor-in-Chief

Students are at odds with administration over the college’s new health insurance policy. The new policy requires students to opt out of health insurance if they are already insured, in contrast with the previous opt-in policy. Their complaints include the cost and coverage of the policy, as well as the fact that they received notification about it just over two weeks before the start of the semester.

 Students received an email from First Risk Advisors about the change Aug. 5 before classes started Aug. 21. 

“Students were told as soon as we had everything finalized,” Dean of Students Alicia Golston said. “When working with multiple constituents, sometimes things don’t go the way students might want it to come out.” Golston requested to see The Sou’wester’s questions in advance. Although this runs counter to The Sou’wester’s practices, The Sou’wester complied with Golston’s request due to the importance of her role in this issue.

Students were automatically charged $1760 on July 30. They had to waive the insurance by Sep. 6, or else they would not be credited back the insurance fee. Uninsured students can enroll for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act starting Nov. 1.

“The decision was made to offer the health insurance last spring,” Golston said. “The college began exploring offering health insurance probably over the last two years. In addition, within the last year, the college was reached out to from students and from families who were becoming unexpectedly ill while they were here or injured during their time at the college, and what we discovered is that students’ health insurance coverage was not extending to the Memphis network, and we were also finding that students were being impacted negatively with their ability to stay here,” Golston said. 

When asked why Rhodes took two years to move from an opt-in to an opt-out policy, Golston denied that the college had changed the policy. “The College has required that students have health insurance for many years.  Thus, the requirement to have health insurance is not new.” Golston was not aware of the number of students who had complained or what the costs of their healthcare were.

According to Sarah Lueck, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the plan through First Risk advisors is a student health plan, “which is a type of coverage that is a contract between a college or university and an insurer that is offered to students and their dependents. It must meet certain [Affordable Care Act] standards but is exempt from others. For example, it has to provide at least a 60 percent ‘actuarial value’ and it cannot deny people based on any health status-related factor.” Actuarial value is a technical way of comparing the generosity of health coverage. If actuarial value is 60 percent, the insured person is responsible for 40 percent of treatment costs.

“I arrived at Rhodes College on June 10,” Health Center Director Adora Browne said. “When I got here, [the new policy] was already in the works. My involvement came in when we were deciding how it was going to be rolled out to the student population and parents…We did an email campaign, we did home mailers, so a set of information went out to the students and a set of information went out to the parents.”

The Sou’wester contacted multiple students to see if they had received a mailer. They all reported that they had not.

Students (or their families) may have to pay for two insurance plans if “the student’s individual plan coverage does not extend to the Memphis, Tennessee area,” Golston said. Undocumented students will not have to pay for health insurance, but are “eligible for the plan.” International students receive coverage through a program with the Office of International Education.

“We anticipated over 90 percent of our students would already have health insurance, but that was a generalization. There was no expected number of students who would have to enroll in the program,” Golston said.

Health insurance policyholders receive an explanation of benefits (EOB), which details what medical services insurance companies pay for on the policyholder’s behalf. The basic policy First Risk Advisors posted online for Rhodes College reads in part, “POLICYHOLDER means the institute of higher education to whom the Master Policy is issued.”

“Rhodes is not the policyholder,” Golston said when read how First Risk Advisors defines policyholder. She did not respond to questions about whether information in EOBs is confidential.

The new insurance policy does not cover routine eye care, dental care (with some exceptions) or nurse practitioner visits at the Moore Moore Infirmary.

“Right now, it’s $60…If we start the process of billing insurers, it could go anywhere from upwards of $100,” Browne said. She cited the fact that both Rhodes and the provider would need special certification as among the reasons costs would increase.

The policy also does not cover trans students’ costs of transition. The Sou’wester spoke to one such student on the condition that she remain anonymous.

“I had to get the insurance because my dad is unemployed and I’m not insured. It’s almost like my family is being punished because the premium for a student is $1700. My dad is unemployed so they want me to pay an extra $1700?…I had no other options. If I wanted to participate in any athletic or club programs, I had to do it, even though my family can’t necessarily afford it,” the student said. “I will say though that Rhodes Express and Alicia Golston have been great in helping us set up a pay as you go plan over the semester, otherwise I have no idea how we would pay for it.”

Another student complained about the sudden change in policy.

“I haven’t had health insurance since I was a child…My aid covers almost all my tuition but $2000 left, which was nearly doubled [by the new policy], and that’s a lot for somebody in my family’s situation,” she said. While Rhodes previously required health insurance, the requirement “was never enforced,” according to the student.

The student was able to re-qualify for a scholarship she lost her first year, which will cover the cost of insurance. “It was my Hope Scholarship and I had to raise my GPA to earn [my scholarship],” she said.

Athletes without coverage would have to buy supplemental insurance. Track and cross country and swimming are among the “low-risk” sports, and charge a $450 fee. Football is considered “high-risk” and charges $1290, according to Drew Gibson, coordinator of Athletic Training Services . Rhodes athletes have always been required to have health insurance that covers athletic injuries.

First Risk Advisors has United HealthCare as Rhodes’s insurance provider. United HealthCare has recently been found guilty in federal court of illegally discriminating against mentally ill patients and underpaying physicians, according to the New York Times.

“The plan was chosen as the best fit to the needs of our students,” Golston said when asked whether successful litigation against United HealthCare factored into Rhodes’s decision to choose it. “If [the other offices involved] were aware, I would not say that they did not [weigh the lawsuits against United],” Golston said.