International students must have health insurance to protect themselves from high medical expenses.
It’s as important as researching a university or area of study, but few students pay real attention to it. Health insurance, often way down on a student’s list of priorities, is one of the most important aspects of planning studies in the United States.
“I had heard horror stories about medical expenses in the U.S., so I did check to ensure that I had some kind of insurance. But I did not check the specific terms of the insurance plan,” says Meghana Marathe, a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan School of Information in Ann Arbor. Aditya Vashistha, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle, says, “As a research assistant, I knew I had some kind of coverage; I left it at that.”
A Student Health Insurance Guide for International Students by the Eastern Michigan University states that since F-1 international students and their dependents are not eligible for federal aid, it is strongly recommended that they buy health insurance.
Schools in the United States require international students to have health insurance at the time of enrollment, and they usually have mandatory school plans. Some offer voluntary school plans, which students can opt for or buy their own. Few schools have no plans, which would require students to buy their own health insurance.
Insurance-related issues could be confusing. But, as Ross Mason, vice president of International Student Insurance in Florida, says, keeping a few important points in mind can make the process easier. “The most important thing that students must consider is making sure the plan works for them,” he says. To do this, students should carefully look at:
Costs: Does the plan fit their budget? Do they want to pay monthly to spread out the cost?
Out-of-pocket expenses: What are the deductibles and coinsurance amounts they will need to pay if they seek medical care? Also, look for hidden benefit caps, as some plans will cap internal plan benefits, which could end up making you pay more.
Benefits and exclusions: Learn what the plan covers and excludes.
School insurance plans
School health insurance plans are certainly a good option for students, but there are a few concerns too. “The problem with most school plans is that, sometimes, they can be very expensive,” says Mason. “Oftentimes, they are not made for international students, but for the whole school and are really geared for domestic students.” Most student insurance plans don’t cover preventive care or offer wellness options. It is, therefore, important to find out if regular checkups are covered. Taking advice from field experts can help.
Also, a lot depends on the size and standing of the school. For example, The University of Texas at Austin, part of the largest university system in the state of Texas, offers great insurance options for students who have a scholarship from the school or are employed in some capacity. Its student health insurance plans cover regular checkups and offer wellness programs.
Some schools offer medical services at the campus student health centers. For example, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the medical service center is open to all students enrolled in the university student healthcare plan. “Often, the services performed here are free or at a very discounted cost,” says Mason. “With health insurance, most plans will give you the flexibility to [also] seek medical care off campus. However, you may need to keep within your insurance plan provider’s network.” At The University of Texas at Austin, seeing a doctor when enrolled on the school’s plan costs only $5 (approximately Rs. 330). However, visiting a doctor outside the campus, but within the provider’s network, can cost about $30 (approximately Rs. 2000).
Not all services are covered at these health centers though. Deepa Fadnis was a graduate student at the University of West Virginia when she needed emergency care because of malaria. “I had student travel insurance when I left India and knew it would cover some portion of my treatment, but I wasn’t sure exactly how much that would be,” she says. Fadnis’ scholarship covered the entire cost of the treatment. She advises students to look carefully at what the university and scholarship packages offer. “Talk to the international office and ask questions,” she says.
Another important aspect to remember is while most plans for students can be renewed for up to four years, some plans can be renewed for a longer period.
Studying in the United States without adequate health coverage can prove to be expensive. Marathe says she has heard about students paying “$1200 (approximately Rs. 80,000) for a minor fix in an emergency room, $2000 (approximately Rs. 133,300) for a root canal operation and so on.” She advises students to get a thorough health and dental checkup, and complete any treatments a month before leaving for the United States. Fadnis says that finding out what the university offers is as important as looking into travel insurance for students.
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.