When the twenty-two-year-old student’s heart started racing, she figured that she was just fatigued after a long day at school. A visit to the Boynton Clinic at the University of Minnesota convinced her that she was just having anxiety attacks. A second visit, an EKG and several blood tests later, she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition where one’s thyroid gland produces more hormones than it should. Her doctor then put her on medication and monitored her heart for about a year. The Eastern European student at a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) school, was dismayed when she received a $1500 medical bill, even though she was insured. even though she was insured. Her insurer, United Healthcare Student Resources, is an insurance company that specifically covers college and university students, but it only covered one EKG a year.
Another student, Olya Danilova from Russia, says “I always have to pretend that something hurts before I go to the doctor, I can’t just show up for a check up or it won’t be covered.” She learned the hard way that her insurance did not cover preventative healthcare.
“My last visit to a doctor was 2 years ago,” Danilova said. “I had some really bad pain and the doctor told me to take an x-ray. I ended up with a $500 bill.” Both students also lamented that the $969 they pay towards insurance every year does not cover dental or optical visits.
Health insurance coverage is mandatory for international students, but its coverage is limited. Heather Oehrlein, based at St. Cloud State University, the system’s student insurance advocate explained, “This is generally an injury and illness plan, but is not a preventative service.”
While foreign students on F1 visas can also purchase insurance through a different provider, MnSCU requires that to register and maintain their student status, these students must purchase a plan through the United Healthcare Student Resources. The plan, according to Oehrlein, offers a repatriation and emergency medical evacuation, something that most domestic policies do not offer.
“When students come to the US to study, their school is ultimately responsible for them,” Oehrlein explained. “In the past students have died, and schools have had to foot their funeral expenses.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that 1.7 million internatiponal students around the country are uninsured, not unlike resident students. Oehrlein says that before insurance was mandatory for international students, many of them went uncovered to cut costs; while some were insured under their parents’ home insurance which did not always cover repatriation.
Repatriation means sending the body home, if a student dies in the United States. This insurance plan, she says, makes sure that this cost, mostly of transporting a dead international student’s body back to their home country, in excess of $15,000, does not fall on the school.
Every year, an insurance committee meets to review the provider’s delivery and assess student’s needs. Oehrlein says that in the recent past, they have found that infrequently students with congenital diseases have had major surgery, however, United Healthcare Student Resources has not covered them. The committee, which had to vote on whether to include congenital diseases in the insurance policy, voted against it because according to Oehrlein, “[including it] would increase the premium costs for all students,” and because Oehrlein argued that there are people who would take advantage of superior medical facilities. “It would not be fair for them to only pay $1000 for a $500,000 procedure.”
As part of her job Oehrlein says she has had to call the insurance company to plead on behalf of students, “If its an error on the insurance company they have always been quick to fix it.”
Danilova, who before this interview did not know about Oehrlein and her work as a liason between students and the insurance company, had to battle her way into reducing her $500 bill, “After numerous calls to the insurance company the bill went down to $90, which makes me wonder how much they are actually supposed to cover but don’t unless there’s a complaint.
The University of Minnesota also mandates that international students purchase their university-sponsored healthcare plan.