University officials say students who are not covered could accrue medical bills that force them to leave school.
TOLEDO (AP) -- A growing number of public universities are requiring that students have health insurance before they are admitted, to save the uninsured from huge bills and college hospitals from getting stuck with the cost.
College administrators are finding that some students are forced to drop out when faced with big medical expenses.
More schools have started mandating the coverage in the past four years, although most public universities still leave the decision up to students.
The University of Connecticut, Ohio State University and all 10 schools within the University of California system now require health insurance.
Students who lack coverage must buy into a school's student health care plan or obtain their own insurance. Costs vary among schools. Undergraduate students at UCLA paid $558 for a full year; the price is $1,211 this year at the University of Toledo, where insurance is required.
Others, including Old Dominion University, Kent State University and South Dakota's board of regents, have decided against the idea, concerned it would cost students too much money.
"What makes it a tough decision is the potential added costs," said Jim Mitchell, director of student health services at Montana State University, which has required insurance for nearly 20 years. "But there's compelling reasons to do it."
The costs to uninsured students can be staggering when they're hospitalized.
A student at Old Dominion who was seriously injured in a car crash came away with $100,000 in medical bills, said Jenny Foss, director of student health services.
"Students can take care of their car repairs, but they may not be able to take care of their injuries," she said.
In extreme cases, the student is forced to declare bankruptcy.
Surveys from insurers and schools indicate that anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of college students do not have insurance. Most are still covered under their parents' plans.
Allowing students to decide whether they want health insurance can dilute a school's health plan when few students buy into it.
Often, Foss said, it's mainly students with health problems who purchase coverage, driving up the number of claims and the costs.
Old Dominion, in Norfolk, Va., discontinued its health insurance plan a year ago because just 400 of its 20,000 students were using it. That's despite a school survey that showed about 4,000 students had no health coverage.
Some schools have resisted mandatory health coverage because they fear the extra costs will push students to other colleges. Others worry that students already are burdened with huge loans and rising tuition.
"We may be pricing students out of college," said Alex Wright, president of the student government at Bowling Green State University, where administrators are considering requiring health insurance.
He said he understands the benefits of health coverage but adds that the costs could force students to take a semester off or pick up a part-time job.
Know the risks
Bowling Green's Glenn Egelman, director of student health, said students need to be educated about the importance of health. Something as common as an appendicitis could result in a big medical bill, he said.
"It can happen to anyone, at any time, and it can definitely happen to young people," he said. "We see students who have to leave school because of something that can't be predicted."
Unpaid medical bills were a big problem at Ohio State's medical center before the school changed its policy three years ago. In one year, the school found uninsured students owed $600,000, said Ted Grace, director of student health services.
"It made it very easy to make that decision," he said.
Hospitals no longer absorb the costs because of increasing health care expenses.
The same thing was happening at Montana State in Bozeman in the mid-1980s, but it was the town's only hospital and local doctors who were getting stuck with the bills.
"That raises the price for everybody else," Mitchell said.