Health insurance cost rising for international students across Kansas

Health insurance costs are increasing by hundreds of dollars this fall for many international students across the state, thanks to a change in the Kansas Board of Regents’ (KBOR) health insurance standards.

International students must legally have health insurance. In June, the board updated Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliance requirements to state that insurance providers must be “authorized to do business in Kansas” and provide “coverage under a policy that has been filed and approved by the Kansas Insurance Department.”

This addition renders it illegal for two popular insurance brokers — PSI and ISO — to sell cheap plans to international students.

The UnitedHealthcare Student Services plan has a $709 premium this school year — up from $625. Last year, PSI and ISO offered the same plan for $309.

PSI and ISO sold plans that were hundreds of dollars cheaper than the UnitedHealthcare plan KBOR provides its institutions, by covering mandatory examinations without incidental coverage.

Sri Krishna Vastav Alla, president of the Indian Student Association and an international senator in the Student Government Association, said his constituents were panicked to hear their insurance providers could no longer legally cover them.

“I received about 30 to 40 calls in just a matter of a day once the International Office sent out that email saying that PSI and ISO cannot take our insurance, because that is literally more than 50 percent cheaper,” Alla said.

He said his girlfriend, who has just one credit hour left to take at WSU, now has to pay a $709 premium for one semester of insurance.

Before this year, Student Health Services provided waivers to students who found alternatives to the United plan through providers that met KBOR requirements. This year, the board hired ECI, a Colorado-based waiver company, to manage waivers for international students.

ECI President Laura Evans said KBOR’s decision to tighten provider restrictions will safeguard against unlicensed providers that face no consequences for failing to make claims payments to students. Brokers such as PSI and ISO can pull out of insurance plans with no liability.

“There’s a lot of insurance carriers out there — or marketers — targeting international students to get on these cheaper plans just so they can make more money, and there’s issues with claims payment and all kinds of things,” Evans said.

Student Body President Kenon Brinkley said he approves of KBOR’s decision to ensure that providers will be held liable for mistreating students, but that international students’ favored brokers have a track record of operating on good faith.

”This seems like an arbitrary distinction,” Brinkley said. “We’re trying to prevent liability that hasn’t been an issue.”

Brinkley said he sent the owner of PSI an application to become registered with the Kansas Insurance Department and encouraged him to draft up his history of service to international students.

Evans said that if the brokers followed through with the steps required to get licensed by the state, their plans would be just as expensive as United’s, and that, despite the years of honest coverage PSI and ISO may have provided, trusting brokers to operate on good faith can backfire.

“I can understand where students are coming from, but at the same time, I’ve been on the other end where I see claims not being paid by these carriers, so well it might not have happened to them, it’s happened to plenty of other international students,” Evans said.

Alla said insurance prices are not something prospective international students take into account when choosing a university.

“They don’t know how the insurance is to compare, but once they land in here, they’d understand they’re paying a $709 premium and they’re stuck here because it’s a hidden fee,” Alla said.

He said increased premiums detract from the benefits of a program like the Global Select — a Wichita State initiative that allows high-achieving international students to pay 150 percent of in-state tuition instead of out-of-state tuition. The Global Select was also approved at the June KBOR meeting.

“They’re trying to decrease [tuition] and they’re trying to do something really, really good to pull in people, and on the other side, there is a $709 premium which the students have to pay and they have no other option,” Alla said.

Brinkley said that, even if increased premiums don’t discourage international students from coming to Kansas schools, they could have a negative impact on retention.

“Who’s going to stay here if insurance prices are going up every year and tuition is going up every year and they’re just here to get their damn degree?” Brinkley said. “When you go just up I-35 to Nebraska, they’re treating students a hell of a lot better there.”

Evans said the United plan is likely the most cost-effective option for international students who can’t get a waiver through a supplemented employer plan.

“I think it’s an excellent plan for the money,” Evans said.

She said she’s surprised more people don’t go back to school just to get on such a plan.

“If you’re a 60-year-old student going back to school and you can be on a plan that’s ACA compliant at a cost that these plans are — if I was that person, I’d be going back to university to get on one of these plans.”

Sheryl McKelvey, WSU’s representative on KBOR’s Student Insurance Advisory Committee, said it’s unlikely the board will seek another provider any time soon.  

“The reason we go with United is because they’ve been with us for quite a number of years and have provided good coverage to the students,” McKelvey said.

She said a $709 premium isn’t unreasonable.

“That averages out to about $4.63 a day, which, yeah, in the grand scheme of things, that does seem like a lot, but that’s a trip to Starbucks,” McKelvey said.

In years past, PSI and ISO have sponsored international student events on campus as a platform to market their products. With limited understanding of how health insurance works in the U.S., international students have been saddled with not only increased premiums but also unanswered questions, Alla said.

“No one’s willing to sit down and talk to us and tell us ‘Okay, this is a better way — this is a better way to do it’ or maybe ‘This is an illegal way — this is the way you shouldn’t be doing it,’” Alla said.

“No one was invited to speak about it, no one was told about it, and everything has been done.”

Director of Student Health Services Camille Childers said that by the time the decision had been made to tighten requirements, it was summer and students were largely unavailable. She said Student Health is a place where students can go to ask questions about insurance.

“It’s a complex issue and we’re happy to answer questions,” Childers said. “Unfortunately, some of those answers are not what people want to hear.”

Brinkley said international students need to know their concerns are being heard.

“International students — even if there’s not a concrete solution that can lower these prices for them — they at the very least need to know that someone is pushing for them.”

Brinkley said there are seven international senators in the 61st session of SGA and that international student issues, along with mental health issues, will be a top priority of his administration.

“This is not going to be the year that international students feel left behind,” Brinkley said.