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    What About Insurance?

    Here's what you need to know about health insurance for your college student.

    Interview by Steve Hendershot

    Protecting the health of your child gets considerably more complicated once he or she hits campus. Your family will have to figure out the best ways for your child to be insured. Should your son participate in the college-sponsored health plan? How long can your daughter stay on your health insurance policy?

    Mark Nichols has been answering questions like these for 22 years. As a vice president of the Markel Insurance Company in Richmond, Virginia, he provides insurance for more than 200 post-secondary schools, including more than 70 Christian colleges and universities. Campus Life asked him to share some suggestions and insights on insuring college students.

    What's the first thing parents need to consider when thinking about health insurance for their college-aged son or daughter?
    The first question a parent should ask is "How does going to college affect my child's health insurance status?" For example, a student who goes to college part-time is typically not eligible to be covered as a parent's dependent, while full-time students may still be covered. However, even if your child will be a full-time student, their decision to move out and set up a different permanent residence can affect their eligibility. If you do keep your child on your policy during the college years, you should be aware that on different policies, children eventually "age off" of the policy—that is, they're no longer eligible for coverage after age 19 or 21. At that point, sometimes there's a COBRA option. COBRA is a plan that allows parents to pay an additional premium to keep their children on the policy, but this option is typically quite expensive.

    Even if my child is on my insurance, will the fact that he's away from home affect his coverage?
    That's a very good question. If the student goes to school away from his home region, a parent's HMO and PPO coverage may include a limited number of doctors or specialists in that area. HMOs and PPOs are scrambling to form networks that enable them to provide coverage out of area, so this isn't the concern it used to be, but it's still worth checking into.

    In case of an emergency or major medical need, it's a good idea to have some information on hand about your provider's "pre-notification requirements." HMOs want notification within a short time if your child is hospitalized or needs surgery. Those requirements can be difficult to fulfill if you're away from home. So be aware of these protocols and make sure that you and your student have contact information for your insurance provider.

    What should parents consider when deciding whether or not to sign up for a voluntary plan?
    You want to look at the overall plan maximum, which should be at least $50,000 per condition. The industry standard is generally $100,000 or $200,000 per condition. You also want to look at deductibles and coinsurance factors. Also, find out what kinds of other limitations may exist for the policy. Read the exclusions carefully—students who participate in activities like water sports or downhill skiing may be excluded.

    Also, if your child has what insurance companies call "pre-existing conditions," you'll need to find out how the colleges treat them. Something that works in your favor is that legally, insurance companies must cover you for conditions that were covered under prior insurance policies as long as you transfer coverage immediately, without a break between your former insurance policy and the new one.

    What kinds of options do college-sponsored health insurance policies usually provide?
    Most universities offer a sponsored program, following any of three enrollment methods: In the first type, the college offers a sponsored plan, but it is not required. In the second type of plan, the college requires some type of health insurance, but if you have comparable coverage the college doesn't require you to purchase their plan. The third type of plan requires students to participate in the sponsored plan. Most institutions are leaning toward requiring health insurance, mostly for their own liability.

    What if a student can't stay on a parent's policy, and the school-sponsored policies aren't acceptable?
    Each state's Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliate is pretty much guaranteed to be the insurer of last resort. They have to provide an individual policy, although it's often expensive and doesn't always offer the same depth of coverage as other plans.

    An Internet search also can provide some possible options for individual coverage. Be careful, though, because less credible people or companies also may advertise there.

    For a school-sponsored policy, is the school's health center the primary care giver?
    Usually. Most school policies rely heavily on the services provided by the school's health center. Some of the costs of care are paid for up front as part of the insurance policy. And if they can't provide the service you need, they can refer you elsewhere. But yes, if the health service is available, and you choose a doctor or hospital without a referral, those costs may not be covered.

    Any final thoughts for parents?
    While it may require some extra time and effort, I would encourage you to make sure your insurance coverage meets your needs and is really worth the cost. Along with that, it's a good idea to make sure your child is involved in the whole process. It's another way to ease the transition from dependence to independence.