North West health insurance useful for some, useless for others

When McCormick junior Antonio Rocha first came to Northwestern, he opted out of Northwestern’s student health insurance plan, thinking his personal plan was sufficient.

But after encountering medical issues during his freshman year, Rocha realized his plan didn’t cover much. He contacted the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid midway through the academic year and asked for coverage, which he got after some hesitation from them, he said.

“The details to determine if your plan was a comparable plan were a bit too complicated,” Rocha said. “They have all of these things listed and it was just very difficult to parse the information.”

NU assesses personal health insurance plans through an annual online questionnaire that students must complete or they will be automatically enrolled in NU-SHIP. The University determines essential health benefits as defined by the Affordable Care Act, ranging from outpatient care and emergency services to prescription drugs and maternity care.

If students meet “no” to any of the requirements in their personal plans, they must enroll in NU-SHIP to ensure full coverage while on campus.

Although NU-SHIP is optional for all undergraduate and graduate students who reside in the United States, international students are required to enroll in NU-SHIP – even if they have a comparable plan in their country of origin.

The annual premium cost of the NU insurance plan is $4,386. Still, in-network care will cost students a $250 deductible before NU-SHIP begins coverage and an annual limit of $2,000. The deductible amount increases to $500 for out-of-network care.

NU-SHIP does not cover dental and vision expenses. Instead, students who want these services covered can opt for external plans run by the university. Delta Dental costs students $391.23 per year, and DeltaCare, a more limited coverage plan, costs $188.50 for the year. The vision insurance plan costs $87.66 per year for students.

Some, like first-year Bienen master’s student Rachel Côté, want NU-SHIP to cover dental and vision insurance as well.

“(Dental checkups are) really important to your…dental health,” Côté said. “But it’s so expensive. It’s quite frustrating.

Low-income students have varied financial aid experiences

Students who cannot afford to pay the full premium receive assistance from the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid. For McCormick’s second year, Jasmyn Rieff, need-based financial aid covers program enrollment fees.

Rieff said NU-SHIP covers her medical expenses to a reasonable extent, as long as referrals are made by Northwestern Medicine. When she went to emergency care for a dislocated kneecap, she said she still had about $500 of outstanding charges.

“I had to go to emergency care because Searle (Hall) was apparently booked for the whole day,” Rieff said. “I think part of (why I still have to pay) is that I didn’t get a referral. They just verbally told me to go to urgent care.

Rieff added that she also pays lower fees for individual services such as therapy. NU-SHIP covers mental health costs with networked offices, but students like Rieff must pay a $20 copay for each session. However, she can submit copayment receipts to network offices for reimbursement.

Asked about accessibility, Rieff said she wanted NU-SHIP’s coverage and procedures to be more transparent and easy to understand.

Some students, like Weinberg senior Elizabeth Wolf, are not reimbursed for medical costs such as mental health services. Wolf said while the reduced cost of therapy is helpful, $20 per session adds up.

Wolf also suffered two hospitalizations while at NU due to chronic migraines, one of which resulted in a $1,500 bill not covered by his insurance plan. However, Wolf said NU-SHIP reduced that amount from the original fee of $7,500.

“Coverage is pretty good,” Wolf said. “I know your mental health care isn’t factored into your deductible, although I think that’s still pretty good coverage.”

In an email to The Daily, media relations director Hilary Hurd Anyaso said the University covers the full cost of the NU-SHIP insurance scheme for low-income people. She did not comment on this variability in medical expense coverage on NU-SHIP among students receiving financial aid.

“The financial aid office contacts all incoming students who are eligible for aid and provides the money directly to them,” she wrote. “The financial aid office proactively contacts all eligible students to ensure they are aware of this benefit before they even come to campus.”

International students must register with NU-SHIP

Students with a U.S. J-1 or F-1 visa must enroll in NU-SHIP regardless of their insurance plan in their home country. For Côté, this means that she must pay the full price of the insurance plan.

Côté, who is from Montreal, earned his undergraduate degree in Canada. She said she used her mother’s insurance for dental, vision and other specialty insurance policies that Canada’s public health care plan doesn’t cover.

Since joining NU, she has said she wishes there was a tiered system where she could opt out of some expenses she doesn’t need.

“I find it frustrating that there was no yes or no, like I couldn’t come if I didn’t have (the insurance),” Côté said. “I’m paying at least $5,000 more than I expected to come here, which is important when you don’t have a lot of money.”

Côté added that she recognizes that she is a relatively able-bodied person who is fortunate enough not to need all of the coverage provided by NU-SHIP. However, she said services such as fertility treatments and treatments for pre-existing conditions that she does not have are coverage she does not anticipate needing in the future.

International students are likely to have mandatory coverage through NU-SHIP to ensure students are taken care of while in the United States, Côté said.

“It could put someone in a bad situation if they didn’t have insurance while they were abroad,” Côté said.

For other international students, like Weinberg junior Evelyn Long, NU-SHIP’s price is comparable to other student plans. Because Long has permanent residency in the United States, she said her family thought it would be easier for her to stay on NU-SHIP.

Long said the flexibility of the program appealed to him. Students can choose to buy year-round coverage or enroll whenever they want, as long as it’s at the start of one of the academic terms.

“Because more people are using NU-SHIP, it felt more convenient,” Long said. “The school already provides you with the information and you just know it will work with Northwestern Health Center.”

Still, some students think the high cost of NU-SHIP doesn’t match the coverage students actually need. Côté said important aspects of healthcare coverage include seeing a GP, emergency room visits and mental health services.

Côté added that if NU allowed it, she would still be on her mother’s insurance plan.

“Until I’m 26, I’m covered by my mother’s plan…it also covers medical expenses when you’re abroad,” Côté said. “I could totally have stayed with that, but I still had to get NU-SHIP.”

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Twitter: @swarthout_iris

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