SHIP terminates dependent coverage, sparks contention among students

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For Arran Phipps, a graduate student researcher and father of three, the termination of his children’s current health insurance coverage leaves him with few choices — it’s not a matter of whether they’ll be covered, but of where to turn to and how much it is going to cost.

In an effort to keep costs low for its 23,000 users, the Student Health Insurance Plan will no longer offer coverage for dependents of students beginning this fall, prompting outcry from some whose children or partners may be adversely affected by the change.

The service is currently used by 0.9 percent of students on SHIP, with about 200 dependents covered by the plan, according to  Kim LaPean, the Tang Center’s communications manager.

“In order to contain costs, we have to look at benefits,” LaPean said. “Dropping the dependent coverage … really helped save a lot of money to keep the premiums lower.”

Students with dependents on SHIP were notified in April of the changes and informed of a free assistance helpline provided by University Health Services to help guide users through the process of enrolling dependents in the health-care exchange.

Many of these members will qualify for subsidies on Covered California or may qualify for Medi-Cal, LaPean said, which “most people would consider a better, more affordable option than the dependent plan that they had through SHIP.”

But for those whose incomes disqualify them from Medi-Cal or whose families need specific health care packages that cover expensive and up-to-date treatments, the change can be frustrating.

According to Phipps, whose wife decided to come to Berkeley specifically because there was dependent coverage offered and whose son is type-1 diabetic, the helpline informed him that there were no private insurance plans available for his family that would be subsidized through Covered California. In addition, their income exceeds the eligibility limit for Medi-Cal.

Although offered a private insurance plan by a health insurance agent, Phipps said it would cost him an additional $3,500 per year, compared with the coverage of SHIP.

Some criticized UHS for making inadequate efforts to consult affected students before coming to a decision.

The change was recommended, however, by the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee — made up of ASUC and Graduate Assembly members — as well as advisers from the Tang Center’s Student Health Advisory Committee.

“With this move, they’re really sending the message that grad students with families aren’t welcome here,” said Ben Keller, a graduate student and member of the student worker’s union UAW 2865.

The union has formally submitted a grievance to the university for allegedly violating its contractual obligation to meet with the union twice a year regarding changes to SHIP benefits and for discriminating based on pregnancy, childbirth, marital status and citizenship.

LaPean said concerns regarding individuals who might be adversely affected by the change — specifically undocumented students and international students — being unable to find new coverage for their dependents are misinformed.

International students can obtain health insurance in the United States, according to LaPean. In addition, LaPean said there isn’t evidence to suggest the change would have an effect on undocumented dependents. But Beezer de Martelly, a fifth-year graduate student and steward of the music department for UAW 2865, said the union has been contacted by individuals whose spouses and partners do not have Social Security numbers.

Dean of the Graduate Division Fiona Doyle said the department is currently working with UHS to create an in-person info session to provide information to students navigating the healthcare market. While this would be helpful, Phipps said, ultimately the campus’s decision to end coverage forces them to face difficult consequences.

“Everyone is just aware that you need to have health care for your kids one way or another,” Phipps said. “We don’t mind paying for it. … Just give us that option to do that, and at least make that somewhat affordable.”

Contact Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ayoonhendricks.