In accordance with the second anniversary of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, addressed the impact of health insurance coverage on students in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Sebelius highlighted the benefits of the legislation, noting that 2.5 million young adults that would have otherwise been excluded from coverage under the law have been enfranchised into the health care system today because of the legislation. University health officials noted that while they have seen an increase in insured students and better accessibility to resources for well being, there is still room for improvement for the University’s health care program and national policy enacted under Obama.

“The number of minority young adults with coverage has seen the biggest increase, which is important for the populations who often have more trouble gaining access to coverage,” Sebelius said.

Due to the high costs of health insurance, Sebelius said many young adults work jobs instead of attending school or simply choose not to purchase coverage. By now allowing people to remain on their parents’ health plans until they are 26, students are now free to pursue a variety of other goals, including attending college and starting businesses.

“(For) young adults who felt healthy and were looking to save money, going without coverage often seemed like a good alternative,” Sebelius said. “Without coverage, the young adults were both not getting the preventive care needed to keep them healthy and were living every day just one serious accident or illness away from medical debts or worse.”

Robert Winfield, the University’s chief health officer and director of University Health Services, said a survey conducted by UHS found that the number of uninsured undergraduate students today is 9.4 percent, a 2-percent increase over the last three years. However, he cautioned that a single accident or medical emergency could be catastrophic for the average student.

“It’s pretty common for appendicitis to be $10,000 to $15,000, or a bill for an auto accident to be substantially higher than that,” Winfield said. “Everything we can do to assure a higher level of insurance for poor students is a good idea.”

Winfield added that while more than 3,000 students subscribed to University-offered insurance program a decade ago when premiums were about $1,000, only 1,350 students are enrolled today as premiums are now near $3,000.

“We are seeing people drop out at the rate of 150 to 250 (students) every year,” Winfield said. “We’re facing this problem and not yet sure how to solve it.”

The UHS survey also found that of the students who have insurance coverage, 67 percent responded that they were covered by their parents’ plans, while 30 percent said they were not and 3 percent said they were unsure. Of those who were covered by their parents’ plans, 80 percent said they were covered before the enactment of the health care reform.

“Every time you manipulate something, you change the cost of the insurance, and students are price-sensitive,” Winfield said. “I would prefer to see that all students have to have a minimum level of health insurance. I think that is not explicit in the ACA law, which says everybody should have health insurance, but the penalty is such that it doesn’t really rise to the level of feeling mandatory.”

Mark Fendrick, co-director of the University’s Center for Value-Based Insurance Design, said one of the most important facets of the reforms is the free high-priority preventative care Americans, including University students, can now receive with no co-pay.

These “high-value preventive treatments” include obesity counseling, immunizations, cholesterol screening, depression testing, tobacco use counseling and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, according to Fendrick.

“It’s been very exciting to see a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed that approximately 73 million Americans between the ages of 0 and 64 have private coverage, and because of this expansion of preventive services in the Affordable Care Act, 54 million Americans have access to high-value preventive treatments that they did not have before,” Fendrick said.

In November, Fendrick was invited by the offices of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions about a policy developed by the University regarding the value-based insurance design. Fendrick explained that the model includes reducing barriers, such as co-pays, for patients and providing access to some of the high-value medical services that were included in Obama’s health care law.

Fendrick added that the coverage of preventative measures is a good start, but there needs to be increased accessibility to treatment for individuals who are diagnosed as high-risk or test positive in preventative medical tests.

“What I would love to see extended is, say, once a University of Michigan student were to be screened for depression or screened for sexually transmitted diseases … (I would like for) the Affordable Care Act and the health plans to take the results of those screenings one step further to allow those individuals who test positive easy access to providers and treatments,” Fendrick said.

Winfield said financial aid for health care coverage would be preferable, but not probable with the current economic climate. He added that students face a double-edged sword when choosing to pay for their own health insurance coverage.

“If you don’t have insurance and you get sick, you have big financial difficulties,” Winfield said. “On the other hand, if you have insurance that’s so expensive, then you might not be able to stay in school. The lynchpin is financial aid, depending on the cost of the insurance.”

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