International students must buy U’s health plan

Branden Peterson

Starting fall semester, the University will mandate all international students and their dependents buy the University’s student health benefits plan.

The policy comes after Boynton Health Service staff found a large portion of international students who use its services had poor or no coverage at all.

“We’ve experienced quite a few students that get into some serious jams,” said Sue Jackson, the University’s Student Health Benefits Plan director.

“They come here and they don’t have a clue about what our health system is about,” she said. “We just want to make sure they’re taken care of.”

Boynton regularly surveys its patients with a variety of questions. After officials developed a “conservative estimate” suggesting 44 percent of University international students remain uninsured, officials became concerned.

All University students are required to own health insurance while they are attending classes.

Yet when international students visit the United States, they find a unique health-care system many find very expensive and far different from home.

“We have always told our students that they need insurance, but we really hadn’t considered mandating it,” said Craig Peterson, assistant director of the office of International Student and Scholar Services.

But after Boynton approached the office with concerns many of their students could be under significant health risks without adequate medical coverage, International Student and Scholar Services officials agreed with the Boynton recommendation.

“We didn’t know the level of uncovered people was that high,” Peterson said. Even if students do seek out private insurance, he said U.S. firms frequently deny foreign visitors access to health insurance.

Preserving the health of the University’s international students is a must, several University officials said.

“Our first priority was to take care of students,” Jackson said. “It’s very difficult for me when I can’t help those people.”

Minnesota International Student Association President Sulieman Nader said while his views do not necessarily represent his organization, he believes the new University health-care policy will benefit international students. Others might react with skepticism, he said.

“I think a lot of them will react in a negative way because you’re restricting their freedom to choose what plan they want,” Nader said.

He has encouraged others to use the University health coverage for years, Nader said, but students still do not realize the value of the coverage until they need it.

“The ‘U’ has a responsibility to international students as well,” he said. “They’re visitors from their countries, and God forbid someone gets really sick. If their health plan doesn’t cover them, it’s not like their parents can come in. The ‘U,’ in a way, is responsible.”

After seeing several of his friends stumble into problems with other insurance packages, purchasing the University plan eliminates many of the same issues, he said.

Jackson said with the policy, the University joins a wave of others that are mandating that international students buy school health insurance.

“It’s something other schools are going towards,” she said.

Approximately 5,100 international students are currently signed up for the University health plan. Officials are not sure exactly how many new customers it will receive next fall. Boynton spokesman Dave Golden said it expects between 1,000 and 1,500 new students to sign up.

The policy will automatically assess the health-care fee to international student accounts. International students can waive the fee if they prove they have coverage through a U.S. employer.

Dependents of University international students will be offered a price break; however, officials believe enforcing that dependents have insurance will be difficult.

While enrolled in the Student Health Benefits Plan, international students will receive the same prices and services as any other University student.

International students will not be locked into using Boynton. The Student Health Benefit Plan opens the clinical door to 98 percent of Minnesota’s physicians and hospitals, all part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield provider network throughout the state.

“We’re responsible for bringing people here,” Jackson said. “After seeing so many problems … we need to be making sure they’re cared for.”

Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]