Steubenville drops student health plans. (updated)

On Tuesday the Franciscan University of Steubenville announced that it would stop offering students health coverage at the end of the summer. Why? Contraception coverage and cost:

The Obama Administration has mandated that all health insurance plans must cover womens health services including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing medications as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). Up to this time, Franciscan University has specifically excluded these services and products from its student health insurance policy, and we will not participate in a plan that requires us to violate the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church on the sacredness of human life.Additionally, the PPACA increased the mandated maximum coverage amount for student policies to $100,000 for the 2012-13 school year, which would effectively double your premium cost for the policy in fall 2012, with the expectation of further increases in the future.

It's strange that the university would cite the contraception mandate as one of its reasons for dropping student health coverage now. First, the mandate doesn't kick in until August 2013. And second, there's a good chance the school will qualify for an exemption. Remember, the Department of Health and Human Services regulations exempt religious employers that primarily employ and serve co-religionists, and whose purpose is the inculcation of its religious values. If any Catholic college fits that bill, it's Steubenville, whose student body is 95 percent Catholic. How do you think the school's insistence that it's not exempt will play at HHS when it applies for an exemption?So if the contraception mandate doesn't take effect until 2013, why rush to dump student health coverage?

Here's how Tom Sofio, the university's PR director, explained it to me:

This past March, HHS released a rule stipulating that all student health insurance plans carry per-incident coverage of $100,000twice our current level of $50,000 per incident. In fall of 2013, the required per-incident coverage shoots to $500,000, and then fall of 2014 it goes up to no annual limit at all. This, of course, raises the premiums dramatically for our plan even in this first year, from $588 to about $1300, with unknown increases every year thereafter.

That does sound like a dramatic increase. But consider how much employers pay to cover single adults -- often around $700 a month. Steubenville's student premiums were $50 a month. And for what? If a student got hit by a car, he'd blow through his maximum in a few days, and likely be left with a mountain of debt for the costs his insurance wouldn't cover. (Update: Contrary to Sofio's claim, the ACA mandates [.pdf] that after September 23, 2012, the annual -- not per-incident -- maximum be no lower than $100,000.) The Affordable Care Act was designed in part to address that problem. By mandating that student plans phase in higher maximums, the law protects students from perilous financial exposure.Yesterday Michael Hernon, the university's vice president for advancement, appeared on Fox and Friends to explain the decision. He claimed that the ACA "would double what we have to charge our students, and then it would triple. That's something that's both a moral and an economic injustice, in my opinion. The Affordable Care Act is simply unaffordable for our students." Nice line. So why not let the students decide whether they could afford their share of the premiums?As for Hernon's claim that premiums would triple, that's baseless speculation -- because there's no way to know what the premiums would be in 2013, when the maximum goes up to $500,000. By Hernon's logic, premiums would continue to rise to infinity, once the cap is done away with completely in 2014. But that's not going to happen. Because that's not how insurers calculate premiums. They consider a variety of factors, not simply a policy's maximum coverage. The ACA completely eliminates lifetime limits on non-student health plans. Does anyone expect premiums to rise to infinity? It's possible that Steubenville's premiums were going to double for reasons unrelated to the ACA, such as record claims during the previous year.Of course, Steubenville has never made a secret of its opposition to the contraception mandate. Its president, Fr. Terence Henry, believes the law directs Catholic institutions "to cooperate with the culture of death." But that death-dealing, religious-freedom-trampling law also makes the university's decision to end student health coverage relatively easy -- because it allows people under the age of twenty-six to be covered under their parent's plan. Steubenville gets some budgetary breathing room. Students get better coverage. Everybody wins. Unless their parents' plans cover contraception. And I bet many do.So much for student health coverage at Steubenville. What about employees? Despite the university's strong opposition to the contraception mandate, it's not doing away with employee coverage. As Dan Gilgoff reports, "the school is retaining its health care plan for employees because it is hopeful that legal challenges to the health care law will prevent much of it from taking effect." So the university can't abide the contraception mandate (that doesn't go into effect until August 2013) when it comes to student coverage, but for employees, it's all right? Interesting distinction. Sofio told me that the university "went on record last November in opposition to the HHS mandate because it requires us to provide services and coverages opposed to our strongly held Catholic beliefs."Not according to the university's employee health plan (.pdf), which went into effect on January 1, 2012. A few pages in, the program states:

This group health plan believes this plan is a "grandfathered health plan" under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the Affordable Care Act). As permitted by the Affordable Care Act, a grandfathered health plan can preserve certain basic health coverage that was already in effect when that law was enacted. Being a grandfathered health plan means that your plan may not include certain consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act that apply to other plans, for example, the requirement for the provision of preventive health services without any cost sharing.

This means that so long as Franciscan University does not significantly alter the plan by cutting benefits or raising costs to employees, it won't have to provide contraception coverage. It won't even be subject to whatever form the accommodation takes. Yesterday the university sent a letter to students promising to "do everything in our power to protest the ill effects of this unjust federal regulation." But it doesn't look like the the school will be much affected by the ACA. (Except for the part that allows them to hand off student coverage to parents.) Do the university's spokesmen understand this? Not if their public statements are any indication.And those statements have garnered plenty of media attention -- some criticism, sure, but lots of praise from conservative Catholic quarters. Catholic Online declares "Franciscan University of Steubenville Takes Stand to Respect and Protect Life." Taking a stand involves risk. But if the school won't have to include contraception coverage in employee health plans, and if it wouldn't have had to include it in student plans until 2013, and if it may receive an exemption from HHS, then where's the risk? What price does the school pay to protest the Affordable Care Act? Looks pretty cheap to me.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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