Chancellor Birgeneau urges lifting of coverage caps on UC SHIP

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In 2007, former chancellor Robert Birgeneau forgave $31 million of Cal Athletics’ debt owed to the campus.

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau joined a growing group including student leaders and politicians when he urged lifting coverage caps from the UC Student Health Insurance Plan in a letter signed Wednesday.

In a letter addressed to UC SHIP officials, Birgeneau cited a survey of more than 450 UC Berkeley students showing 67 percent in favor of lifting the $400,000 lifetime coverage cap and 63 percent in favor of lifting the $10,000 annual prescription drug coverage cap in exchange for slight premium increases.

“From the survey, we frequently heard from Berkeley students that they felt a moral need to lift the caps,” Birgeneau said in the letter.

For months, students have been urging UC SHIP officials to have the plan voluntarily comply with the Affordable Care Act’s ban on lifetime and annual dollar limits on essential care. As a self-funded insurance plan, UC SHIP is exempt from the health care reform law.

UC Office of the President spokesperson Brooke Converse said UC officials are in support of ridding the plan of the caps but are still examining the financial implications of the proposal.

“In general, we’re in the support of lifting the caps,” Converse said. “We’re working to see how we can do that, but it is going to take a raise in premiums in order to do so.”

Although few students actually reach the coverage limits, the effects on those who do can be devastating.

In his letter, Birgeneau acknowledged Kenya Wheeler, a former graduate student in city planning at UC Berkeley who began treatment for primary central nervous system T-cell lymphoma in November 2011. Since then, he has met the lifetime coverage cap and has had to pay at least $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for his treatment.

“I was really excited and pleased that the chancellor has taken a public stance in support of better health care for all students,” Wheeler said. “For me, it adds a sense of there being a meaning from all the challenges and hard times that I went through in fighting cancer.”

Other local and national leaders, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, urged in a letter last month to align UC SHIP with the national standards set in place by the Affordable Care Act.

Last month, California State Assemblymember Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, introduced AB 314 to require plans like the UC SHIP to comply with the federal requirement and end lifetime and annual coverage caps. The Committee on Health is scheduled to hear the bill on Tuesday.

The systemwide Council of Chancellors will accept recommendations regarding the coverage caps from the UC SHIP Executive Committee, a group consisting of campus and UCOP officials, before making the final decision on the coverage caps. The council’s next meeting is scheduled for May 1.


Mitchell Handler covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mitchellhandler.