Six months after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health care reform has finally moved off the front pages of America’s newspapers and is no longer the lead story on the nightly news. But below the surface, the controversy and political fights over the issue continue to roil.
Evidence of that came when higher education was recently drawn into the fight. On August 12, the American Council on Education and several other higher education associations wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Health Reform to ask for guidance regarding key ACA provisions to ensure colleges and universities could continue to offer students affordable, high-quality health care plans.
The response by the news media, spurred by interest groups following the issue, was almost immediate, and in the last few months organizations ranging from The Wall Street Journal  to the College Parents of America  have mischaracterized our effort as an attempt to carve out an “exemption” or “waiver” from ACA requirements. Some groups have suggested that we actually oppose efforts to enhance the quality of student health plans, while others say we’re only in it for the money.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Read the letter  for yourself.
First, colleges are not seeking either an exemption or a waiver from the law. Historically, student health plans have operated under federal law as so-called “limited duration plans” because they provide coverage for a specific time period and are neither employer-based group plans nor plans offered on the individual market. These programs are tailored to meet the primary care needs of students as well as additional services such as mental health coverage.
Each is priced according to the eligible campus population and provide coverage to all eligible students and their dependents, do not vary premiums based on an individual student’s health status, and typically do not impose pre-existing condition exclusions. They are particularly important for international and graduate students. In short, these plans provide coverage that is responsive to the unique needs of the student population.
While the law specifically states that institutions may continue to offer student health plans, ACA is silent on how the law’s new requirements affect these unique plans. Federal agencies will need to write numerous regulations to implement ACA. Our letter seeks to include among them regulations that clarify how student health plans can continue operating as “limited duration plans” under a structure that incorporates reforms in the ACA -- and not, as some claim, to elude those reforms.
Specifically, we have asked HHS to provide rules of the road on two key topics:
- What insurance reforms in ACA apply to student health plans? ACA includes many insurance reforms, such as prohibiting preexisting condition exclusions or other discrimination based on health status, but it is not clear which apply to student health plans.
- Assuming student health plans incorporate required insurance reforms and provide at least a minimum ACA-defined level of coverage, will that satisfy the individual mandate to purchase health insurance under ACA?
We seek answers to these questions now because although many of the reforms in ACA don’t take effect until 2014, a number of institutions will soon be negotiating with insurers for new long-term contracts that will define the benefit coverage of their student health plans through 2014.
Are we opposing efforts to enhance the quality of student health plans? Absolutely not. In fact, we are following the lead of the American College Health Association, which has a longstanding set of standards to guide colleges and universities in structuring high quality coverage for student health plans. We also believe ACA will inevitably lead to improvements in the quality of student health plans, which is important because while the majority of institutions offer health plans of high quality — some continue to lag behind and must be improved. The key for us is ensuring that the changes brought about by ACA will result in plans that are both high-quality and affordable.
It is also wrong to characterize our efforts as an attempt to shield a major higher education profit center. The money made off these plans by colleges are modest, and revenue — if any — is returned to campus health centers or used to help maintain stability in the premiums paid by students.
In short, student plans respond to the unique health insurance needs of undergraduate and graduate students. They provide coverage over a limited time period for students under the age of 26 whose parents are uninsured and nontraditional students who are too old to access their parents’ plans. In some instances, student plans offer better coverage than students can get under parental plans, especially if they’re going to college hundreds or thousands of miles away from their parents’ networks or parental coverage does not adequately cover out-of-network care, making it prohibitively expensive.
Colleges and universities recognize the importance of ACA’s reforms and want high-quality health insurance options for their students. We are confident we can work with the administration on a constructive solution to ensure students have access to affordable, high-quality health coverage that is consistent with the reforms in ACA.
Terry W. Hartle is the senior vice president and Steven M. Bloom is the assistant director of federal relations for the American Council on Education.