Thousands of low- and moderate-income college students are about to get a break on the cost of health insurance, thanks to new rules going into effect Friday to bring the state into compliance with the national health care law — as well as the advocacy of two passionate college sophomores.
Until now, Massachusetts denied most full-time college students free or subsidized state health insurance through Commonwealth Care or MassHealth, forcing them to buy insurance directly from their colleges if they are not on their parents’ plan.
That meant many students who otherwise might have had free or low-cost health insurance were instead charged thousands of dollars. Premiums vary widely, but the annual premiums at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston and Dartmouth campuses are about $2,100 this year.
While some students received financial aid to cover their health insurance, several advocates said they heard from students forced to take out more loans to cover their insurance, drop to part-time studies, or even take time off from school.
“That really shook people up a little bit, that students were making academic decisions based on health insurance,” said Ferd Wulkan, interim Executive Director of PHENOM, a grass-roots advocacy group for affordable public education in Massachusetts.
The Affordable Care Act has changed the ground rules. The state is no longer allowed to exclude from subsidized programs those who can get insurance elsewhere, and that includes college students, according to Suzanne Curry, senior health policy manager with Health Care For All, a Massachusetts advocacy group. At the same time, she said, the law’s Medicaid expansion means that young people won’t lose MassHealth at age 19, as many have in the past.
The Massachusetts Health Connector issued rules in December requiring colleges to accept plans from the Connector or MassHealth, with a few rare exceptions. Base premiums for Connector plans next year range from free to about $1,400 a year, depending on income level.
State officials did not have an estimate for the number of students who would benefit from the changes. Most college students are covered by their parents’ private health insurance, but more than 108,000 students were enrolled in health insurance through their colleges in the 2009-2010 academic year, according to state data. It is not clear how many of them will now qualify for subsidized state plans.
Long before the Connector issued the new rules, two interns for state Senator Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, were on the case. Jacob Miller, a UMass Dartmouth sophomore, has interned for Montigny for three summers, and first heard complaints about the insurance gap from constituents.
“You are telling students that they’re in college, where you’re going to better your life, but we’re going to punish you in a way, we’re going to take away your health insurance and force you to buy [more expensive] health insurance,” Miller said.
He first raised the issue with Senate staffers in 2012. Then, serving in the student senate during his freshman year at UMass Dartmouth, he met low-income classmates who were forced to pay for the college’s insurance.
This past summer, he raised the issue again with Senate staffers and Montigny himself.
Coincidentally, so did his fellow intern Marc-Daniel Paul, now a sophomore at Suffolk University. Paul, whose family was living in a shelter when they moved to Massachusetts three years ago, had insurance through MassHealth but said Suffolk still enrolled him in its program anyway. He had financial aid and scholarships to cover the cost, but heard from other college students who were taking out extra loans to pay for insurance.
Montigny was concerned that some colleges appeared to be refusing to accept MassHealth policies even from the students who still qualified for the program. He ultimately got an amendment requiring colleges to accept such policies added to the bill signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July implementing the Affordable Care Act in Massachusetts.
“We succeeded not in small part because of the personal experiences of Jacob and Marc-Daniel,” Montigny said. “What better way to legislate? It’s one of the more interesting amendments I’ve had in years because of their involvement.”