New University health care plan receives mixed reviews

Feb. 19, 2010, 1:07 a.m.

Students with spouses and children here are returning mixed reviews of the new University-offered dependent health care coverage — the first since 2006 — announced by Vaden Health Center officials last week.

Starting in September, Stanford will offer an option for students to buy dependent health care coverage for their families at a rate of $202 a month for a spouse, $103 a month for one child or $386 a month for a spouse and multiple children.

The optional health care coverage has not been available since 2006, and the lack of an affordable plan hit many students with children and spouses hard.

Some graduate students, including members of the Graduate Student Council, which pushed for the new coverage, called last week’s announcement a victory.

“This is, along with the huge undergraduate financial aid package of last year, one of the best things Stanford has done for students in the past five years,” said Eric Osborne, a third-year law student and co-chair of the GSC.

“In Escondido Village, there are over 400 children living there…those people would really benefit from being able to sign up for a dependent plan,” said Hanna Popick, a graduate student in psychology who chairs the GSC insurance committee.

The coverage will be offered as part of the changes to Stanford’s health care system for the upcoming academic year. Vaden officials say that through the new provider, Health Net for California, the plan will be more cost-effective plan for Stanford dependents than its earlier iteration.

This move, along with limiting enrollment and adding subsidies by the University and the Cardinal Care program, allows Stanford to offer the dependent care option again for the first time in four years.

Many graduate students with dependents have dealt with the lack of a Stanford option by either buying independent insurance plans, buying public insurance through the Healthy Families program or going without altogether. This has especially been an issue for international students and dependents with preexisting conditions.

“An extremely large number of graduate students have been on welfare,” Osborne said. “Stanford has, in effect, relied on the state.”

After 2006, Stanford offered some help to students in finding independent plans, but for the large part they were on their own.

“Getting coverage has been a nightmare. We make too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, and…it took several months, pounds of paper and hours of phone calls to get my children enrolled in Healthy Families,” wrote Alanna Nelson, the wife of bioengineering graduate student Geoff Nelson, in an e-mail to the Daily.

Some students faced high premiums for independent plans for spouses, especially those who did not qualify for public insurance. The premiums for independent insurance hit graduate students especially hard, as they generally receive only small stipends.

“When we lost the insurance, I had to go to Healthy Families [for my daughter],” said Adam Beberg, a computer science graduate student. “I was lucky that my wife was healthy, so we could get her onto Kaiser. It was $300 a month.”

The old plan entered a so-called “death spiral” due to few enrolled patients, most of whom had very high medical expenses and could not get care elsewhere. This in turn drove the premiums too high for the plan to be sustainable; the option was discontinued.

In order to keep the premiums affordable, the new plan will limit enrollment: students will have only one opportunity either in September or at the beginning of their studies to enroll their dependents, excepting a qualifying event like birth or marriage. This way, the patient pool will be more constant, and students will not jump on and off just when they need coverage, said Ira Friedman, the director of Vaden Health Center, who announced the new plan last week.

“[The plan] puts limitations on open enrollment to keep the number of people more stable,” Friedman said. “Dependents can’t go off and on based on whether they need it or not.”

The benefits of the plan, however, are not the same as Cardinal Care. Students expressed differing opinions on the quality of benefits for the price, with some, including Nelson, calling the plan’s benefits lacking.

“The plan itself is expensive and terrible,” Nelson said. “The lifetime benefit is abominably low, the premiums are expensive and literally only a few dollars cheaper than the open market, which is ridiculous for a group plan[.] The co-pays are still fairly high, and there’s a deductible and coinsurance on top of it all.”

Others felt that the benefits beat out the competition at similar prices. Peter Olcott, a graduate student in bioengineering, said he will use the plan because of the better benefits at a lower price.

“[There is a] significant increase in coverage at a lower monthly payment, elimination of a high deductible, 100 percent coverage (not 30 percent), reasonable co-pays while being able to access Stanford Hospitals and Palo Alto Medical Foundation services,” Olcott said in an e-mail.

Friedman, however, argued that the plan is good for students.

“One, its simple enrollment,” he said. “Two, no one will be excluded because of their medical condition. Three, there will be no exclusion because of pre-existing conditions. Four, there will be security in knowing you will be able to get coverage without going through an application process and worrying.”

Kimberly Washington, a sophomore undergraduate and mother of one, says that she will buy the new plan because it will make paperwork much easier and it will make financial aid coverage more straightforward.

“It’s just more convenient…I was hoping they would do this eventually,” she said.

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