At FSU, it's now books, pens, health insurance

The school joins a national trend to ensure students have coverage.

Published May 29, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - A broken bone, cuts and bruises weren't enough to keep a Florida State University student out of class after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle three years ago.

His $30, 000 hospital bill, though, forced him to drop out because neither he nor the driver had insurance, recalled Leslie Sacher, director of the university's Thagard Student Health Center.

The student, whose identity is confidential, eventually worked out an arrangement to pay the bill and he returned to school. It was the last straw, though, for health center officials who annually process hundreds of medical withdrawals.

"We were determined that was going to be the last student who suffered in that way, " Sacher said.

It took a bit longer than she had hoped, but Florida State this fall will be the state's first public university to require health insurance, starting with the freshman class and other new or transfer students.

If students lack their own coverage that meets university criteria, usually through a parent's policy, Florida State will provide it at a minimum annual cost of $1, 449. Financial help will be available for low-income students.

Mandatory insurance is a growing trend among the nation's universities. It's nearly universal among private schools and the number of public universities requiring it has grown from 25 percent to 35 percent in the past two years, according to the American College Health Association.

Accidents are just one of several factors driving the insurance push, but it's the reason most prominently mentioned on Thagard's Web site. It warns - more than once - emergency room costs alone could be enough to force a student "into debt for life."

Another factor is uninsured students who get sick often put off or fail to get treatment or prescriptions filled.

When uninsured students do seek treatment it's often in the emergency room, the most expensive option, Sacher said.

Florida State's tuition includes a health fee that pays for office visits at Thagard, but unless students have insurance they must pay for procedures, tests and prescriptions - offered at discounted rates - out of their own pockets.

The turning point for Mary Coburn, Florida State's vice president for student affairs, came when only one company bid on the school's voluntary health insurance offered to students. Too few students were enrolling and those who did typically had health problems, driving up the risk and cost.

Florida State's Board of Trustees approved mandatory coverage in May 2005 after Coburn told the panel rates for the voluntary insurance had soared 142 percent in the prior five years. She said increasing participation through mandatory coverage would lower rates.

Students can add the insurance premiums to their financial aid packages, which they cannot do with voluntary coverage. They are not covered, however, by the state's Bright Futures scholarships, which are based on academic performance rather than need.

Florida State officials had intended to put the plan into effect last year, but the startup process took longer than anticipated, Coburn said.