College student health insurance a wise —and affordable — investment

Whether you’re an undergrad or graduate student, your options depend on where you go to college, if you already have coverage through a family or individual health plan, and how much money you make.

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Since health plans vary from region to region and state to state, your first call might be to an insurance agent in the market where your college is located to discuss your options.

Since health plans vary from region to region and state to state, your first call might be to an insurance agent in the market where your college is located to discuss your options.

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Are you among the2.9 millionfreshmen nationwide who have just started college, or are about to? As you buy your books, ponder the best meal plan or wonder whether you will get along with your roommate, don’t forget about health insurance.

Whether you’re an undergrad or graduate student, your options depend on where you go to college, if you already have coverage through a family or individual health plan, and how much money you make.

It might surprise you to know you could qualify for no-cost Medicaid, the public health insurance program for people with low income.

“The good news is there are a few good options,” says Paul Rooney, vice president of carrier relations at eHealth, an online health insurance broker based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Since health plans vary from region to region and state to state, your first call might be to an insurance agent in the market where your college is located to discuss your options. The help is free. In Illinois visit getcovered.illinois.gov.

Sometimes, staying on your family’s plan is the best option — and you can do so up to age 26.

If you are on your family’s plan, or you have your own insurance, call the customer service number on your insurance card to ask about the level of coverage, if any, it will provide if you attend college in another region or state.

If your family health plan is a preferred provider organization (PPO) with a national insurance company — Cigna, Aetna or UnitedHealthcare, for example — you often can get full medical services at in-network prices in other regions of the country where your insurer operates.

But it also has to work financially. Parents, ask your employer or your insurer if taking your child off the family PPO will lower your premium. If the answer is no, and he will have full network coverage while away at college, it makes sense to keep him on the plan.

If the answer is yes, do the math.

Keith Wakeman, CEO of a Chicago-based mental health app startup called SuperBetter, learned he would save $1,900 this year by taking his son Jack off the family’s Blue Cross PPO and buying him the student plan offered by Purdue University, where he is a freshman.

“The plan is much better for Jack in terms of deductibles and copays — and also includes vision and dental,” Wakeman says. “It was a no-brainer for us.”

It probably also makes sense to take your student off the family plan if it is a health maintenance organization (HMO) or an exclusive provider organization, both of which restrict their networks more than PPOs.

There are exceptions: Some insurers allow HMO enrollees to get full medical services at no extra cost in other regions or states where they operate. Ask your health plan if that’s possible.

If it’s not, the health plan offered by your college could be a good option.

Student health plans have improved in recent years, in part because they almost always comply with the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements. That means most offer a comprehensive range of medical services at a high level of coverage, says Stephen Beckley, a senior partner with Fort Collins, Colo.-based Hodgkins Beckley Consulting, which works with colleges on student health programs.

The University of California system’s health plan is “exceptional,” Beckley says, “because of its highly favorable cost and the addition of vision and dental benefits.”

Nationally, costs vary widely from college to college, and some are very high, Beckley says.

Beware: Many universities will enroll you in their health plan automatically, and you must obtain a waiver — by proving you have other acceptable coverage — to avoid the charges.

“We tell people that you should make sure you’re not being opted into services you won’t use,” says Erin Hemlin, director of health and policy advocacy for Young Invincibles, which promotes the interests of young adults.

If your family plan doesn’t work for you anymore and your college plan is too expensive, check to see if you qualify for no-cost Medicaid.

This goes for students at private universities and public schools, including the 481,000 students at the 23 campuses of the California State University system and the 2 million-plus who attend one of the state’s 115 community colleges.

In themore than 30 statesthat have expanded Medicaid, including California, individuals who make up to about $17,200 annually are eligible for the program. It helps if your parents do not claim you as a dependent on their tax returns; otherwise, you must report their income.

Check with the health department in your county to see if you qualify.

Enrollment in 2020 Obamacare exchange plans starts Nov. 1.

Experts say a viable option for some students who are on their family’s plan is to stay on it, getting emergency care at a local hospital if necessary and basic primary care at the on-campus clinic (access is often included in student fees). They can wait to get physical checkups and other non-urgent care until they visit home.

Kaiser Health News, a non-profit health newsroom, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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