A bill being floated in the state Legislature is meant to help keep college students in school, but it could have the unintended consequence of allowing thousands of them to drop their health insurance - despite the federal mandate extending coverage to all U.S. citizens.
Understanding the quandary means grappling with the complex calculus of some of the state's insurance regulations.
The current law requires anyone attending college in New Jersey to be covered by health insurance. To keep attendance high, some colleges offer relatively inexpensive coverage.
The new proposal would eliminate health coverage as a prerequisite to college.
But under the federal Affordable Care Act, all Americans - students and slackers alike - must have access to health coverage.
And that's where the trouble starts.
The federal mandate imposes a penalty on those who decide not to buy. More importantly, it's expected that the law will drive up the price of insurance.
State lawmakers are worried that when the ACA is in place, the cost of health benefits could rise precipitously - forcing students to choose between tuition and coverage. Thus, the move to revise the older state law.
The thinking is that students can choose to pay what will be a small penalty and still be able to afford a higher education.
The bill (A- 3546) was pulled from the Assembly agenda on Thursday, when some Democrats voiced concerns about the insurance shortfall. (The Senate has already passed its version of the measure.)
Bill sponsor Celeste M. Riley (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) said she was concerned that potential students couldn’t afford the increased costs and would forego a higher education.
“I don’t want to make it a decision for you to have to choose between your education or your healthcare,” said Riley, who supports the ACA. “I want you to complete your education, so that in a year or two you can buy health with it .”
At some private four-year colleges, coverage currently costs $400 to $600 on average. At community colleges, a barebones package that basically covers catastrophic events typically sells for $75 to $100 per year.
But college officials estimate that once the ACA is in place, annual insurance premiums would rise to anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex and Passaic) said legislators are trying to balance concerns about increasing the number of uninsured with the danger of making college unaffordable. Oliver expects an Assembly vote on a revised version of the bill on February 21.
“Because so many Democrats are committed to access and availability of healthcare for everyone, there are ambivalent feelings about creating an environment where we’ll take a cohort -- students -- who have none because they can opt out,” she said.
Oliver said legislators might amend the bill so that it will expire after a certain period of time, allowing them to weigh the effect of the ACA on college students.
She added that individual colleges would still be able to mandate that their students must have insurance.
“I am particularly concerned about the community-college level, where you have adult learners who return back to school, raising families, paying mortgages. If they’ve got to pay an additional $1,100 for the whole healthcare policy, it’s going to knock a lot of people out from getting an education.”
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