American University's health insurance policy requires full-time students, students living in campus housing, and any international students with F-1 and J-1 visas to have personal health insurance. Because insurance is required, students are automatically enrolled in AU's health insurance plan.
A premium of $1,890 for the insurance plan will automatically be charged to a student's account unless they submit a waiver by the annual deadline. The waiver must show a student has a "comparable" healthcare plan that provides coverage in Washington D.C. and "meets our criteria," the policy states.
The July 12 email about policy change states in all capital letters:
"NOT EVERYONE WHO APPLIES FOR A WAIVER RECEIVES IT."
Neither the email nor the attached document stated that Medicaid -- government insurance for people with limited income levels -- no longer meets the standards for a waiver. Students found this out after their waivers were rejected by CareFirst, AU's new student health plan provider.
Even though more students said they were being rejected than in the past, AU said it's health care policies haven't changed.
"What's new is the extra layer of confirmation," said Traci E. Callandrillo, Assistant Vice President of Campus Life. Rather than self-reporting insurance coverage like previous years, waivers are now being reviewed before being granted to students in order to confirm they have adequate health care coverage in D.C, she said.
This caused a lot of concern for students on Medicaid whose insurance was previously accepted. Students have until September 20 to submit a waiver, but many were scrambling to get an answer sooner because August 1 is when the insurance plan went into effect and when tuition was due -- with almost $2000 extra tacked on.
"How do you expect students who are on Medicaid to pay this extra fee, and we don't have the money?" Junior Nyshayla Barnes told The Blackprint. She has not had any problems opting out of the student insurance plan until this July.
After submitting her usual insurance documents and getting rejected unexpectedly, she saw Medicaid was not counted as comparable insurance, even though the school previously accepted it and it may be the only option for low-income families.
She said she emailed several departments a detailed description of her insurance policy, but didn't find any helpful answers. "I'm not about to sit here and keep going through this scavenger hunt with all these offices. Somebody is going to help me," Barnes said.
She posted a status on Facebook both expressing her anger and to notify other students of the problems she was having. And she wasn't alone. Several other students took to social media to show their discontent with AU's health new healthcare policy.
When dealing with American University, "I've actually found social media to be the most effective way to get a response," said senior Mikey Lucatorto. He was hoping to get information on the new waiver process before he applied because he saw the other problems students were having.
Lucatorto wished AU notified students with Medicaid about the possible problems when they switched providers, but that didn't happen. Instead, it was hidden in the policy of a third party website, he said.
"[AU] wants to blow up my phone about gardening and stuff that no one really cares about. But like, they can't blow up my phone about them needing me to change my health insurance? It just doesn't make sense to me," Lucatorto said.
He still has yet to get a response from the school via social media, but he said he expects it to retroactively address the issue -- which it did on August 2 via email.
"We hear your frustration and will continue working with CareFirst to improve this process so that it goes smoothly and well for all," Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence, said in a statement. She said CareFirst set up a phone line (844-898-3332) and email (CDSHPSHP1efirstname.lastname@example.org) exclusively for AU students experiencing problems with their website.
"Please know that when waivers are denied, it is because a student's insurance coverage appears to be insufficient, based on the university's policies," Aw wrote. A policy, she said, has been in effect for twenty years. However, it started affecting larger numbers of students this year.
Shortly after receiving this email, previously rejected waivers were showing up as approved. "It's like magically they accepted everyone and we're now supposed to stop complaining," said junior Yeabasera Mengistu.
Mengistu is insured by Medicaid, and was told by her financial aid advisor that, as long as her insurance was the same as previous years, she would be fine. However, she said her insurance waiver was rejected 3 times before the CareFirst Portal stopped working.
At this point, Mengistu and her family started discussing how they could pay for the plan. "It was terrifying to my parents because school is already expensive enough," she said. "If I have a compatible health plan, why am I being forced to take out another one?" she asked.
Mengistu was also concerned that incoming freshmen with Medicaid would have unnecessarily paid for extra insurance if returning students didn't speak out about the issue on social media.
After the website started working again, a friend who's waiver was also denied advised Mengistu to check the portal again. Her waiver was approved, but she wasn't sure what had changed from the last three submissions.
It is likely due to her and other students "providing the necessary documentation to demonstrate that their plan provides comparable coverage in DC," Traci Callandrillo said. "There were no policy changes that led to a change in accepting waivers," she said in a statement to The Blackprint.
Scott Graham, Lead PR/ Media Strategist at CareFirst, told The Blackprint that when viewing waive coverage requests, a key factor in approval is "whether a student's insurance will provide the coverage they may require while at American University." This can be challenging considering the majority of students at AU are not from D.C.
Graham said, " We are actively working to address challenges related to the waiver confirmation and enrollment processes with the goal of making the experience as smooth as possible for AU students and their families."