20% of '94 college graduates to lose health coverage

May 31, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- As college seniors leave their dorm rooms, many will be leaving something else behind as well: health insurance.

Of the estimated 1 million students receiving college diplomas this spring, the American College Health Association says 20 percent will lose their health insurance when their college health plan expires or when they no longer qualify as dependents on their parents' policies.

Collin Winterbottom, a researcher in the Health and Long Term Care Department of Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, said that although more college graduates secure long-term coverage (60 percent) than young adults with only high school degree (45 percent) or some college credits (53 percent), they still belong to the most underinsured age group in the country.

President Clinton's proposal to reshape the health system has focused attention on the dangers of being uninsured, but those dangers have not translated into a greater sense of urgency among graduates.

"You're dealing with that mentality, 'I'm immortal, nothing can happen to me,' " said Cindy Launchbaugh of the American College Health Association. "There are a lot of young people out there who do not understand or do not totally accept the need for health insurance."

Few companies offer inexpensive, short-term insurance. Those plans geared toward temporarily insuring low-income people have a moderate pool of applicants for short stretches who pay low premiums, but those plans sometimes provide millions of dollars in coverage for catastrophic accidents. Many insurance companies regard these plans as bad business because they are not highly profitable.

Dr. Neal F. Kassell, vice chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Virginia, says young people may use far fewer medical services than older people, but when they have problems they tend to require costly trauma treatment.

"The services they generally need are from accidents," he said. "The most common form of injury or 'sickness' for that age group are drunk-driving related accidents."

Medical treatment for trauma is much more expensive than that for routine ailments, a difference in cost that the insurance industry passes on through higher rates.

Graduates under age 23 who are still listed as dependents have the option, under federal law, to "roll over" their university insurance to their parents' plan until they reach age 23.

Dr. Kassell comes to the debate as both a physician and a father. He says that his policy will pick up the coverage of his youngest daughter, who graduates from college this month, "as long as she's completely dependent on me for money, housing and food." But if Dr. Kassell's daughter moves out of the house, or if she reaches her 23rd birthday before obtaining her own health care benefits, she will have to pay for individual health insurance.

Many university health plans are based on a 12-month schedule, which provides coverage for graduates until late August, though some students lose their insurance at the end of the month in which they graduate.

Under the Clinton health care plan, everyone would be guaranteed health care.

Using figures supplied by four of the largest insurance companies that offer coverage in the Washington and Chicago areas, a conservative estimate of the cost to insure a healthy, nonsmoking, 22-year-old man for six months is $357.03, and for a woman of a similar profile it is slightly more expensive, $477.01, mainly because of gynecological and obstetric services.

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