In a park near the University of Minnesota campus, Matt Peterson sits on a bench and talks about his health. He is young, healthy and one of the more than 135,000 Minnesota residents in their twenties without health insurance, according to Families USA, a non-profit advocacy group for the uninsured. The 21-year-old former U of M student works 30 hours a week at a restaurant, but health insurance is the last thing on his mind.
“It’s mainly a subject that I never think about,” Peterson said. “It hasn’t really been an issue so far, because I’ve never had any major illness or injury or prescriptions that I have to pay a bunch of money for or anything like that,” he added.
While Peterson could buy insurance through his job, he said it’s expensive and has high co-pays, so it isn’t worth it to him. “I did have health insurance when I was going to school, but I stopped going to the U about a year ago now,” he said. Since then he has been uninsured.
Health insurance at the University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus requires all students registering for six credits or more to have health insurance. According to the University’s OneStop web site, any student without insurance is in violation of the Student Conduct Code. This can lead to the student receiving a written or oral warning or expulsion and withholding a degree.
The web states, “A student’s private health insurance information is subject to periodic audits. Providing inaccurate or false information may result in unexpected charges and is a violation of the Student Conduct Code.”
The University of Minnesota offers a student health insurance plan for $1,702 a year, in addition to tuition. Ed Ehlinger, Director of Boynton Health Services, said the University’s plan is the best option for students. “We get better rates overall by having a mandatory insurance plan,” he said. “You have to weigh individual benefits versus community benefits. It’s best for the entire community because we can keep the rates low.”
Students can also use private insurance if they provide information about their policy when registering, but some manage to slip through the cracks by providing outdated or falsified information. Carl Anderson, Chief Operating Officer of Boynton Health Services estimates that approximately 13 percent of the student body—about 4,000 people—remain uninsured annually.
Ehlinger worries about these uninsured students. “Lacking insurance is a huge risk,” he said referring to the students. “Even if people think they’re invulnerable they still need insurance… Students say they can’t afford it. But by not having insurance they could end up in bankruptcy.”
Ehlinger also sees the lack of preventive health care among the uninsured as problematic. Uninsured young people aren’t able to take advantage of the preventive services available to those with health insurance. As a result, what may have been an easily treatable health problem can develop into an emergency situation.
A troubling national trend
Karen Pollitz, project director at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, said people should care about insuring students and recent graduates. It can be dangerous for people in their twenties to be without health insurance because health care in the United States is expensive and something like a broken leg could cost thousands of dollars.
Referring to a study commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pollitz said 31 percent of young adults ages 19 to 29 were uninsured nationwide in 2006, making them most likely age group to be uninsured. Moreover, buying adequate health insurance is becoming even less of a priority for young adults who face hikes in tuition across the country (including a four percent increase last year at the University of Minnesota).
“Right now the federal government isn’t doing much to address this problem,” Pollitz said. “Our healthcare system is built with holes in it and we need to fix it.”
University of Minnesota student Karah Barr knows what it’s like to be uninsured. Up until she was 18, she didn’t have health insurance. Now she is insured because she is a student at the University. “After I graduate, hopefully I will find a job that will give me health insurance.”
Before coming to the University, the only time Barr said she would go to the doctor was when she needed a physical to play sports. Even though she has health insurance, she only goes to the doctor when she needs new contacts or an annual physical.
Like Karen Pollitz, Ed Ehlinger would like to find a solution to providing health insurance for students like Barr. Ehlinger is convinced that the University of Minnesota health plan is a good solution within a broken system. However, he views the uninsured young population as one symptom of a national problem with health care coverage. He is a proponent of a universal, single-payer system.
“A national problem requires a national solution,” Ehlinger said.
Kelly Gulbrandson, Randi Niklekaj, Alexandra Harkness and Jessica Mann researched student health insurance coverage as a class project while attending the University of Minnesota. More of their research can be found at their blog.