Dependent coverage, transgender benefits to be part of 2016-17 students’ insurance plan

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After months of campus protests and deliberation, University Health Services announced Wednesday that it will reinstate dependent coverage, among other expanded and new benefits, in the Student Health Insurance Plan this fall.

The changes come as part of a new medical contract awarded to Anthem Blue Cross, which served UC Berkeley for decades before a much shorter stint with Aetna through this year. Kim LaPean, spokesperson for University Health Services, said the current contract is designed to provide a more stable, three- to five-year partnership.

As a result, students will pay slightly more for coverage but will have access to increased coverage for vision and dental care, transgender benefits and a wider range of in-network providers, including local emergency services.

LaPean said that initially, UHS was bracing for difficult decisions such as across-the-board price increases and benefits cuts, but that the modest price increases came as a happy surprise. She said the “aggressive” negotiations and expertise of UHS’ new broker, Wells Fargo Insurance, and an insurance climate more accustomed to the Affordable Care Act were likely factors that shaped the deal.

The Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee, or SHIAC — composed of students from the ASUC and the Graduate Assembly —  met weekly with UHS officials starting in November to provide input and learn the complexities involved with choosing carriers.

Costs for basic SHIP coverage will rise by $16, from $1,290 to $1,306 per semester, for undergraduates — the same price that students who have dependents such as a spouse or single child pay. For graduate students who are single or with one dependent child or spouse, prices will increase more significantly from $1,877 to $2,073. Graduate students with two dependent children, however, will pay $4,030.

LaPean and members of student feedback committees — SHIAC and the larger Student Health Advisory Committee — said the increase was well worth the additional benefits.

“It ended up being kind of an easy choice,” said Elioth Gomez, a UC Berkeley senior on both committees.

Approximately 10 percent of UC Berkeley students are parents, according to an estimate from LaPean. In the 2014-15 term, about 200 dependents were covered, all of them either children or spouses.

Dependents represent less than 1 percent of the approximately 22,000 students covered through SHIP insurance, LaPean said in an email, but coverage for dependents is a crucial factor for some students when choosing whether to attend UC Berkeley.

“(You ask), ‘Are you making the right decision for them?’ ” said Michal Olszewski, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in molecular and cell biology and representative on SHIAC. “I started to question that when dependent coverage was revoked.”

He and his wife worried when their son, now almost 2 years old, went for a long stretch of time without insurance coverage.

“It should never have been a problem in the first place,” he said.

UC Berkeley began offering dependent coverage in 2011 but controversially terminated the program as a cost-saving measure last year. Vociferous feedback from unions representing UC workers and graduate students, among other groups, was a driving force behind its restoration, according to LaPean.

“We wanted a more transparent process for everyone,” LaPean said.

Students commended the new benefits for transgender-related operations in next year’s plan. While SHIP currently covers transgender reassignment surgery, it will now cover related treatments as well, such as electrolysis hair removal and top surgery, which are considered cosmetic operations by some insurance providers and are therefore not covered, according to LaPean.

“They’re essential as the surgery itself, if not more,” said David Green, a second-year public policy graduate student in the campus’s Goldman School of Public Policy, who is transgender. Like many on the feedback committees, she considers the options integral to those seeking to transition.

As part of the transition, LaPean said some students will experience delays as the provider networks and online systems adjust.

“We’re supposed to be the most progressive school out there,” Gomez said. “We are Berkeley, and a lot of people forget that.”

According to the UHS website, more details of the plan will be released in April.

Alexander Barreira is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Green is an eighth-year graduate student in the Goldman School of Public Policy. In fact, he is a second-year graduate student.