International students upset with insurance

Changes to Northeastern’s health insurance plan last spring are leaving many graduate students from other countries to choose between two plans – the university’s plan or a private one – that they view to be unnecessarily expensive, students said this week. Some are unsure if they are still eligible to waive Northeastern coverage for their existing plan.

With the Friday deadline to waive Northeastern’s coverage fast approaching, some international students said they remained without health insurance as of Tuesday because they did not want to submit a plan that would be rejected by the university.

Adding to the concerns are cries that domestic students have an easier system to waive Northeastern coverage because they are on their family’s plan, and don’t need to provide as much evidence of having a plan to be judged by the university as being adequate.

Representatives from the Graduate and Professional Student Association said they received hundreds of complaints from students regarding the confusion.

The main discrepancy in the coverage from last year, they said, is the lifetime maximum benefit, or the maximum amount a carrier is willing to pay to cover insurance costs.

When Northeastern changed the university’s official insurance provider from The Chickering Group to Blue Cross Blue Shield in time for the new school year, the amount of the benefit, among other provisions, rose from $1 million to $10 million for both domestic and international students. In order to waive current health care plans from outside the university, students must present a plan that is viewed by the university as comparable with the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.

Massachusetts law, which states every student must be insured, mandates that students have a plan with a $1 million lifetime maximum benefit. In practical terms, a lower lifetime maximum means the policy is likely to cost less.

“When going from point A to point B, I just need a car that may be a Toyota, I don’t need a BMW,” said Sudan Sethuramalingam, a graduate student in the College of Computer and Information Science. “When the Massachusetts requirements says [I only have to have a plan of $1 million], why should I buy something that is so much more luxurious which I cannot afford?”

Interviewed international students say they were never informed of the changes.

Viral Shah, a graduate student in the pharmaceutical sciences master’s program and a native of India, said he bought a plan last year with a maximum insurance benefit of $1 million from an insurance carrier outside Massachusetts. But with the changes that have taken effect, he said he was unsure about whether Northeastern would approve his plan for the coming year.

“Last year, the limit was $1 million,” he said. “There are people who have bought health insurance, for one month, 10 months. Those people cannot waive it off. And those people are not just 20. It’s a huge group.”

But the university does not intend the $10 million benefit as the only provision a student is required to choose.

“To clarify students’ understanding, Northeastern views the $10 million coverage in NUSHP as a ‘guideline,’ not an absolute requirement for assessing comparability,” Northeastern Director of Customer Service David Winch said in a statement released yesterday.

Winch said the university would consider each student’s plan who attempts to waive their health insurance based on the lifetime maximum, along with several other factors.

In a departure from past practice, students who have been denied the right to waive their health insurance will have the opportunity to appeal the decision to the university, he said.

Still, problems persist with communications of the provisions of the new policy to students who were affected, the international students said.

Students interviewed said they received a letter from the International Student Scholar Institute (ISSI) stating they would have to comply with a new Massachusetts law that said they had to have a domestic health insurance plan, but never received any information from the university about the guidelines for the university’s plans. The details were also not included in I-20 forms, which provide the guidelines for student’s educational experiences overseas.

“If they knew that this was going to come out, they should have announced it,” said Aditee Dalvi, a graduate student in the pharmaceutical science master’s program.

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