Are UMass students paying too much for health insurance

By Tim Jones

After completing a 17-month investigation, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo recently released a letter stating that the results of the probe proved that over 65 institutions of higher learning in New York were essentially charging too much for health insurance – and that students were not receiving adequate coverage for the money they spent.

Cuomo claimed such problems as those which were encountered in the investigation included policies that didn’t pay for prescriptions, severely overpriced premiums and policies that did not cover suicide or alcohol related incidents. In a letter sent to over 300 schools last week, Cuomo suggested that institutions review their health insurance policies and make changes to plans that could potentially put students at financial risk.

In Massachusetts, the issue has been in the spotlight for some years now, with almost five years passing since health insurance became mandatory for all students in the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Health Care Reform law, which was enacted in 2006, mandates that almost every resident of Massachusetts must have some form of government-regulated health insurance – including all students attending the University of Massachusetts.

According to Karen Dunbar Scully, University Health Services’ marketing and communication manager, a law was passed in 1989 that mandated that all college students have health insurance.

“One of the things that I think is important is that there is a big difference between Massachusetts and New York, primarily that Massachusetts has mandated health insurance, therefore, different policies have to be followed,” said Scully.

Because of this, students who attend UMass who are enrolled in five or more credits are automatically signed up for the school’s health insurance, which is offered through Aetna Student Health.

Students who already have pre-existing health insurance through another company may sign a waiver for Aetna to have the insurance removed from their overall bill.

According to the University Health Services Web site, the cost for a single person to be covered by the school’s health insurance for the 2009-2010 school year was $2,322. The Family Plan costs $3,836, and students on the Family Plan must also be signed up for the individual health plan. The Family Plan premium, therefore, reflects the cost of both plans.

According to Bernette A. Melby, executive director at UHS, UMass students are receiving a stellar deal for their money, considering the price they are paying.

“When we are looking at benefit design, we want as many dollars to go to health care as we can get,” said Melby. “We’ve seen other institutions with a target loss of only 40 percent, and our target loss is 80 percent, which means that 20 cents of every dollar goes to staff and costs,” she added.

Melby also noted that costs on the insurance aren’t going to go down, or that students will not receive money for unused insurance expenses.

“It’s insurance,” she said. “You may go years without needing it, and that’s the way it goes. But when a time comes that you do need it, it’s there.”

Melby went on to explain that compared to other institutions, UMass students benefit greatly from their insurance.

“In other providers, we’re seeing three to five thousand deductibles. We only have a $200 deductible, she said. “Our co-payments are anywhere from $30-$60, and relative to what we are seeing in the market, this is good coverage,” said Melby.

“The state mandates that insurance provides $50,000 coverage per year; we offer $250,000,” added Scully.

With the UMass health insurance, preferred areas are given 100 percent coverage with a minimal co-pay, and non-preferred areas cover 80 percent of the overall bill. Aetna coverage also provides student access to various discounts and services, such as programs in fields like vision and fitness. For information about the University student health care plan, head to

Tim Jones can be reached at [email protected].