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SUNY Potsdam to change student health insurance policy

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POTSDAM — SUNY Potsdam will change the way it offers health insurance to students to reduce uninsured and underinsured students on campus and hopefully lower the cost of its policy.

The changes passed by the school’s College Council Friday would require students to show proof of health insurance coverage equal to or exceeding the university’s plan before they are able to opt out.

“My main concern is to make sure everybody has coverage,” said Dr. Richard E. Moose, director of Student Health Services. “The number one cause of bankruptcy is medical bills, and this is an age group well known for taking risks that aren’t justified.”

Currently, students are charged $926 per semester for insurance, but can sign a waiver eliminating the fee. Sometimes called a “soft waiver system,” it does not require them to show proof of insurance, creating a gap in coverage.

“There is a community health perspective here that if all students have health insurance, people take better care of themselves,” said William G. Morris, dean of students. “A student that doesn’t have health insurance doesn’t go to the doctor, doesn’t get a flu shot, doesn’t get diagnosed with an infection, doesn’t take antibiotics — and they affect the campus’s health.”

This year, only 8 percent of Potsdam students are on the school’s health insurance plan, with about 85 percent opting to remain on their parents’ insurance, leaving about 6 percent with no insurance at all.

“We have some problems with students that have no insurance whatsoever,” SUNY Potsdam President John F. Schwaller said. “This is something we need to do.”

Students at SUNY Potsdam are divided on the changes. The Student Health Advisory Council, an organization of students advising Student Health Services, worried some students could not afford the health fees. Student Government Association President Ryan Williams said a consensus of student representatives approved of the plan.

“If we had better coverage, the whole system would work better,” he said. “I would say there is still some concern there, but most understand that this constitutes an improvement.”

The changes are not related to the 2009 Affordable Care Act, which could halve the number of uninsured nationally and extend insurance coverage for students, Mr. Morris said. In fact, students may find better coverage on SUNY Potsdam’s insurance than on their parents’ plans.

“In some cases the parents’ plan may not work for students,” Mr. Morris said. “They often don’t cover visits to doctors and hospitals away from home.”

The change could help SUNY Potsdam’s search for insurance providers in the future, Dr. Moose said.

“It is harder to find companies to cover soft waiver schools,” he said. “My colleagues at schools that have recently made the move said there are no impacts on enrollment, and it allows us to take advantage of economies of scale.”

Mr. Morris pointed out that SUNY Potsdam’s student insurance, with a few hundred enrollees, costs more than $1,800 per person a year. A similar plan at the University at Albany, with several thousand enrollees, costs about $1,100 per year.

“The more participants, the less expensive it is per participant — all policies being equal, of course,” he said.

Mr. Morris said he hopes the move will pave the way to pooling insurance services among SUNY campuses at Potsdam, Canton and Plattsburgh. SUNY Canton and SUNY Plattsburgh already mandate students purchase insurance if they are unable to show coverage equal to or better -than the university plans.

Though there has been talk of a SUNYwide insurance plan, so far it has not come to fruition, Mr. Morris said.

“The proposed review on a SUNYwide system is to be quite comprehensive, and therefore it is not likely to move forward as fast as we would like,” he said.

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