Florida State’s mandatory health insurance first in state

Florida State University just became the first public university in Florida to require health insurance for new students, but it may not be the last.

Other state universities, including the University of Central Florida, are keeping an eye on Florida State’s experiment and may follow suit.

“Hats off to Florida State for being a pioneer,” said Bob Wirag, director of Central Florida’s student-health center. “Every school in the system will be watching. Everybody realizes that students without adequate insurance often go without quality care, which can affect their performance at school.”

Starting this term, Florida State is forcing new students either to show proof of insurance or pay $1,400 a year for a school-backed policy.

Advocates say uninsured students who get ill are at risk of dropping out and ruining themselves financially.

Mandatory insurance for college students is common among private schools and has found popularity among public universities.

But Florida State’s new insurance requirement comes amid increasing concerns about the rising cost of attending public universities.

This year, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a 5 percent tuition increase amounting to about $50 per semester, saying he opposed increasing students’ out-of-pocket costs. But Crist later agreed to allow three universities — University of Florida, Florida State and University of South Florida — to charge a premium on tuition next fall that could eventually cost students hundreds more every year.

The cost of health insurance, however, can amount to more than that.

Florida State is requiring students who can’t prove they are covered by their own policy, or by a parent’s or spouse’s policy, to purchase the school-sanctioned insurance.

Joseph O’Shea, Florida State student-body president, said he would like to see public or private subsidies on a sliding scale made available to students who don’t qualify for financial aid, yet might struggle to cover the cost, especially if the insurance plan were to spread to other state universities.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s private colleges and 30 percent of public schools require students to carry health insurance, according to the American College Health Association.

Advocates say mandatory insurance drives down the cost of school-provided policies because schools can negotiate better benefits and prices when they have a larger pool of potential policyholders, said Lesley Sacher, director of Florida State Thagard Student Health Center and a principal architect of the policy. She is the American College Health Association’s board president.

If more schools joined Florida State in a consortium, she said, the $1,400 school-backed policy could drop by hundreds of dollars.

The state’s Board of Governors could decide to make mandatory health insurance a requirement at all state universities, or it could stay out of the issue. Until then, that decision rests with individual schools. Wirag said Central Florida is giving it serious consideration.

At Florida State, the new program affects incoming freshmen, transfer students and new graduate students. Students already enrolled are exempt.

Donald Post, 23, spent three years advocating for the change while serving as student health-care director for Florida State’s student government. He also spent five years working with an ambulance crew as an emergency medical technician.

“I’ve constantly seen students, sometimes friends, sick or injured,” he said. “They’re incurring astronomical costs, have to take out more loans, feel more stress and do poorly in class. These are young adults of 19 who think bad things will never happen to them.”