Could a medical emergency create a financial nightmare?

‘Berg requires health insurance without offering on-campus insurance.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Clark '23. The Health Center on a cloudy day.

A student gets sick during finals week and is unable to visit the health center due to the very limited hours. Forced to go to urgent care and unsure if they’re sick with the flu or COVID, the student hopes for the best. They know they have to seek some form of medical attention in order to keep not just themself, but also their roommates, healthy. As a student without health insurance, the flu test and COVID test alone from urgent care costs them over $200. This story is the real experience of an anonymous student on campus. Luckily, the student just had the flu, but getting sick should not cause a fear of not being able to pay the bills. 

When choosing a college, the campus tour and website highlight features such as campus life and fun clubs to join, but there is little discussion about health related issues such as access to doctors and whether or not the campus has its own health insurance. According to some estimates, as many as 3 million students are covered through student health plans offered by colleges, universities or other institutions of higher education. Yet this offer is not universal among higher education institutions. The Muhlenberg College website states that “the college does not offer a major medical health insurance policy. The College does require that all students have their own individual health insurance coverage.” All students are required to upload proof of their own insurance coverage to the online health portal.

The Muhlenberg College website also states that there is a nominal fee for certain procedures, tests and medications; however, routine visits at the Health Center on campus are free.

“The College does provide a limited accident insurance policy for all full-time traditional students, secondary to the student’s primary health insurance coverage,” says Brynnemarie Dorsey, executive director of health and counseling services at the College.

However, she also says that this secondary policy does not provide any coverage for illnesses, just injury. Students with emergency medical needs or students who need assistance with costly copays, unexpected medical bills or urgent health care issues should contact the Dean of Students Office, which has some financial hardship funds such as emergency grants.

Health insurance becomes an even more pressing issue in a pandemic as the costs for essential items such as COVID tests—priced at $12 per rapid test on campus—add up if they are not covered by insurance. Health insurance for students can come in many different forms, either tied to the student’s place of employment, their parent’s employment, individual health plans through an insurer’s website or through government forms such as Medicare or Medicaid.  If a student is on their parent’s insurance, and their parent or guardian loses their job, as many have during the pandemic, the student loses access to that person’s insurance and must find some other health insurance plan before returning to school.

Although students are required to have health insurance to attend the College, it may not help cover all medical expenses while at school. Hadas Seltzer ‘24 has a chronic illness which requires her to have frequent doctors’ appointments and medical tests. “My health insurance covers me in Massachusetts, while I’m here in Pennsylvania I am not covered,” Seltzer explains.

“My health insurance covers me in Massachusetts, while I’m here in Pennsylvania I am not covered”

Dorsey adds that while there is no primary health insurance or secondary policy for illness, this does not apply to emergency situations. “When determining if a student needs ambulance transport to an emergency room for a life-threatening issue, the focus of the health center is on the health needs of the student,” says Dorsey. While insurance may not be required in order to access these emergency services, students may choose not to go in an ambulance because of their health insurance and because of the cost they may incur. For students like Seltzer, going to the emergency room is a $500 copay plus the cost of treatment. In addition, going to urgent care requires pre-authorization through her insurance company. While Muhlenberg has been able to help give her rides to appointments, it takes a lot of planning, and sometimes it’s easier to try and get rides with friends. 

Seltzer is not the only student struggling with health care coverage on campus. The anonymous Muhlenberg student whose COVID scare led to their costly urgent care trip lost their health care coverage when their mom was laid off due to the pandemic. “I grew up with unstable healthcare coverage, so at this point I started trying to receive coverage from the state,” they said. The process of applying for coverage from the state can be long and difficult, especially for the student, whose parents were separating at the time, complicating what they would qualify for.

Due to the pandemic, the student was not on campus for most of the time they had coverage but they were working a full time retail job where they were consistently being exposed. “It was frustrating because I was constantly being exposed but knew I could not afford to get sick. One of the things at Muhlenberg that was incredibly frustrating to me at the time was that I was required to pay the school a health and wellness fee, which was supposed to allow me access to the campus health center, but this was useless due to my remote status.” The student continued by saying they were glad this payment went to other students’ treatment but they knew that—had they gotten COVID—they wouldn’t have been able to afford care.

“As with most administrative policies on Muhlenberg’s campus the intentions may be good, but Muhlenberg often neglects to think about any groups of students that are not wealthy or lack stability in any way.”

“As with most administrative policies on Muhlenberg’s campus,” they say, “the intentions may be good, but Muhlenberg often neglects to think about any groups of students that are not wealthy or lack stability in any way.”

“Hearing my peers talk about being able to go to the doctor when ill without hesitation or even for check ups is sometimes very discouraging and can make me feel as though my life and safety is more at risk than others,” says the anonymous student. “I am fighting for healthcare coverage and things they take for granted or have never had to consider.”

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