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Last fall, Student Council successfully negotiated for an Aetna Student Health Insurance grant beginning next fall for approximately 270 to 320 low-income students at the University. This huge accomplishment came after years of advocacy by Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action, and will provide relief to many low-income students across Grounds. While this is an important step, the fact that these negotiations even had to take place calls for greater scrutiny and deeper introspection. Further, these negotiations only culminated in a four-year trial run of the program, which means future low-income students are not guaranteed insurance under this new policy. The University must ensure that low-income students for generations to come are protected and insured — no student should have to worry about how they will afford their health insurance or medical costs.
It is important to first acknowledge the achievements and implications of this new grant. This is a momentous feat of student-led advocacy and has positive implications for the many low-income students who may rely on various forms of need-based aid to pay for their tuition. Accordingly, they may have also struggled to afford health insurance — which often costs upwards of $13,000 over four years — as required by University policy. It is similarly important to understand the scope of the new grant. The grant first began as a resolution proposed during a fall 2021 Student Council meeting, which asked the University to approve $1.5 million per year to cover health insurance costs under Aetna Student Health for eligible in-state and out-of-state students. The University agreed to a $1 million per year health insurance grant.
Despite all the positives, healthcare may continue to be out of reach for many low-income students. It is inexcusable that thousands of former low-income students had to graduate $13,000 or more in debt because of their inability to purchase insurance. There is also the question of accessibility to this healthcare for current students. Within Charlottesville, students have the ability to visit the Student Health Building for various health services free of cost. However, many students — especially out-of-state and international students — may continue to struggle to afford insurance when seeking care outside Charlottesville. Similarly, the insurance acts as more of a discount plan on services such as eyecare and dental, but is no substitute for other medical insurance plans such as state Medicaid or private insurance plans.
As a low-income student myself who is fortunate to attend the University under a full scholarship that includes a health insurance plan, I know the struggle to afford medical visits does not end with having health insurance. I have Aetna Student Health Insurance, but the $350 yearly deductible has kept me from using my insurance outside of Grounds — something I did not have to worry about on my government-issued insurance, which I could only use in my home state. Under my state Medicaid program, I may not have had a range of providers to choose from, but my medical visits and prescriptions have often come at a cost of $0. Under Aetna, I’m paying for expensive out-of-pocket medical visits for the first time. Many low-income students at the University have taken on jobs just to afford tuition, and while they may not have to worry about the up-front cost of insurance anymore, additional costs of care may remain burdensome.
The reality is that access to healthcare remains a barrier to not only students, but to people across the country. Low-income people are most vulnerable to disease, especially for chronic illnesses that continue to overwhelm healthcare systems globally. Most of these diseases are preventable, but with over 30 million uninsured Americans lacking access to yearly check-ups — which can provide early detection and save lives — our current system is inequitable. Further, not everyone is eligible for state insurance or has a job that provides healthcare. These barriers, as well as medical costs — which are only rising with each successive year — often deter uninsured Americans from seeking medical attention.
It is unfathomable that amidst a global pandemic, we are still debating whether or not healthcare accessibility is a human right. Despite one’s political leanings, it is fundamentally unethical to believe one must work, achieve or succeed in order to be healthy. With the vast knowledge of medical science that exists, there is no reason why only a select group of upper-class citizens should be allowed to access sometimes life-saving resources and services.
While it is unreasonable to expect the University to solve the national healthcare crisis, it should not have taken until a pandemic for the University to recognize and prioritize the health of some of its most vulnerable students. However, the University can do its part moving forward to ensure that its past and present students are not burdened by inaccessibility to healthcare by forgiving past insurance loans for previous low-income students, working with those struggling to pay medical costs and committing to more than a four-year trial of the health insurance grant. No student — especially those struggling to afford college costs or paying off student debts — should be forced to put their health at risk.
Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.