Guide to health care for college students

A college student’s guide to the importance of health care, options for health insurance, and other healthcare resources

The college experience is full of exciting chances to try new things and discover your path in life, from living in a dorm to meeting other students with the same passions and curiosities as you. Even those taking classes online will grow in their skills, but these new learning opportunities may make an already busy schedule even more challenging. 

No matter how packed your schedule becomes, letting health take the backseat isn’t ideal for a student in this phase of life. You must plan for your wellness to avoid having fewer options when illness or injury strikes, not to mention the opportunity to practice good preventive health behaviors.

Even if you’ve been attending college for some time, it’s not too late to set a course of good health. Read this college student healthcare guide for helpful wellness tips for your post-secondary education.

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Navigating health care as a student

Making sure you can access health services when needed can be tricky at first, especially if it’s your first time sorting these things out. Health insurance plans available to you depend on your status as a dependent or independent student. You can browse through many available plans on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace, also known as the Marketplace. 

As a dependent

According to the IRS, a dependent is either a qualifying child or relative of the taxpayer who provided less than 50% of their own support during the tax year, among other qualifiers. Options available to dependents include the following.

If you’re younger than 26:

  • You can apply with your parents or even be included in your parent’s health insurance policy. Just be sure their insurance has participating providers and hospitals where you attend college.
  • You can buy your own policy. This option may be the best choice if you attend school out of the state and have the closest healthcare providers not included in your parents’ plan.
  • You can buy a student health insurance plan through your school, if available.

If you’re older than 26:

If you are still a dependent for tax purposes, you may be able to get on the same Marketplace plan as your parents but under your own policy. Any job-based health insurance your parents have won’t be available to you. You may still qualify for school-based health insurance and get your own plan on the Marketplace or through your own job. 

As an independent

Independents living apart from their parents (in-state or out-of-state) should file their own health insurance application and have their student health plan. The insurance provider would consider your income alone.

If you live with your parents, you would still get your own policy, but you may need to include your entire household’s income, especially if you’re under 21.

The importance of health care for students

Attending college is a significant life event that will present you with new challenges, adventures, and potential health risks. Making informed, proactive choices around your wellness is the best way to prevent health issues from impacting your experience in higher education. 

Mental health and stress

The stress of a new residence and trying to succeed in college can overwhelm even students with no history of mental health challenges. Students who experience excessive worry, unmanageable stress, or feelings of depression should seek help from campus mental health professionals, as well as turn to student groups to find support in dealing with the obstacles of college life.

Those with an existing mental health diagnosis should have an action plan for how to manage life in a college environment with new challenges. Stay in touch with your primary mental health practitioner, if you have one, and develop healthy relationships on campus that can bolster your mental wellness. 

Don’t turn to self-medication for anxiety, focus, or depression issues. While it’s popular for students to misuse prescription drugs like Adderall to help enhance performance in the short term, there are risks. Using these drugs without a prescription and a healthcare provider’s guidance is dangerous and can lead to substance use issues. It may also mask other issues that should be uniquely addressed and might not be resolved without a professional’s help. 

General illnesses

People get sick. Whether it’s the flu, an ear infection, or strep throat, promptly treating these conditions can keep them from becoming more serious. If your college has a wellness office, make an appointment with a healthcare provider for an evaluation and treatment for general illnesses and infections. Schools may have a dedicated health center to get you treated quickly and back to class without spreading it to others.

General injury

Burns, cuts, sprains, strains, and fractures are just a few of the injuries that can happen on or off campus. Your college wellness office or health center can help stabilize an injury and advise you on how to seek care for a more urgent matter. It can be hard to drive yourself to an emergency room with an injury, so having this support team close to campus can also help you get help safely and not injure yourself further. 

Sexual health

Even if you’ve never had sexual relations (or plan to), knowing what risks exist and how to protect yourself and your partners is always a good idea. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and intimate partner violence are just a few of the situations that students can find themselves in if unprepared.

Having someone to talk to about your questions and concerns is vital. Guidance counselors at the school are trained to advise you on these issues and point you in the direction of a healthcare provider that can address sexual concerns young adults often have in a college environment. 

If you are sexually active or will be in the future, don’t delay seeking resources at the school. You may get access to free and low-cost birth control, including Plan B. If your school doesn’t offer these resources, connect with the local community health center or your healthcare provider. Insurance plans purchased through the Marketplace are required to cover birth control. 

The basics of health insurance

One way to ensure you can get care when needed is to have a health insurance policy. While it won’t cover the entire cost, it can help you plan out your smaller healthcare expenses and kick in when you need it most.

Premium

The premium is the price you pay for insurance, usually billed monthly. You pay for it whether or not you use your insurance. It’s similar to a premium for other types of insurance, such as car insurance or renter’s insurance. You must continue paying the premium every month to maintain insurance coverage; if at any point you fail to pay, you could lose coverage from your insurance plan. 

Deductible

Once you start your health insurance plan, you usually have to pay a deductible before insurance helps pay for certain medical services. For example, if an insurance policy has a $3,000 deductible, you will pay $3,000 for all services or costs covered under that policy out of your own pocket. 

After you’ve met your deductible, your insurance starts to help pay for healthcare costs, at which point you may owe a copay or coinsurance amount. Some costs, such as certain preventive care services, may not be subject to a deductible at all. The insurance company will pay for some or all of these, even if you pay for other things to meet that $3,000 deductible.

Coinsurance

After your deductible has been met and insurance starts paying out, you may be responsible for a portion of each additional charge. The coinsurance amount is the percentage you pay after your insurance company pays itstheir share. The terms of “who pays what” are typically explained as a ratio. So, if you have an 80/20 insurance plan, your insurance pays 80% of the costs, while you pay 20%. A 70/30 plan has the insurance paying 70%, while you pay 30% of the bill, and so on. 

Copay

Unlike coinsurance, which is a percentage, a copay is a flat fee often charged for certain health services. For example, a $50 copay for specialist visits would mean paying $50 when you see a specialist, such as a dermatologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor. Copays may be printed on the insurance card you present when the visit, so the staff knows what you should pay before being seen. 

You may have to pay a copay before and after you’ve met your deductible. However, copays may not cover everything you’ve done during a doctor’s visit. Blood tests, x-rays, or receiving medicine at the office may be charged separately as an office visit fee. It’s important to check with your insurance plan to find out how much your copays will be.

Network

Depending on your insurance plan, you’ll generally want to choose a healthcare provider who is “in-network” or part of the group of healthcare providers that have an agreement with your insurance company. “In-network” providers are those that have agreed to accept a negotiated rate of payment from the insurance company, which is usually lower than their regular rates. For example, in an 80/20 plan, the insurance company would pay 80% for “in-network” doctors but may only pay 50% or even lower for “out-of-network” ones.

Your insurance may even say they won’t pay for any services you get from an “out-of-network” healthcare provider, so checking the network status before you go there is essential. Most insurance companies list their network providers on their websites or in the packet of info you get when you first sign up.

Preventive care

We may think of only going to the healthcare provider when we’re sick or have an injury, but you can get an entire list of services to help prevent or detect problems before they become serious. These may include regular physical exams, bloodwork, or vaccinations. Preventive care may also include screenings for cancer and other health conditions, depending on your plan.

Group plan

Group plans are a type of insurance plan typically offered by an organization, such as a university, employer, or trade association. Because the risk of healthcare costs is spread among everyone under the plan, individuals may pay less for their plan than if they were to buy it independently. Group health insurance plans may also provide additional benefits, such as wellness programs and access to a select network of healthcare providers.

Health insurance options for college students

Do you need health insurance coverage but aren’t sure where to find it? College students have many choices for where they can get health insurance.

Parent’s health insurance

If your parents claim you as a dependent on their insurance plan, you can get coverage through them. Whether it’s an employer-sponsored or private insurance plan, as long as you are a dependent listed on that plan, you can access the benefits.

ACA Marketplace Plan

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) created an online insurance marketplace, also known as the Health Insurance Marketplace or simply “the Marketplace,” where individuals can shop for health insurance plans. It stays open from November 1st through around December 15th every year, with insurance set to start January 1st. You may also qualify for a different enrollment period based on certain life events, such as losing health insurance coverage, getting married, having a baby, or moving to a new area.

These health insurance plans must meet ACA standards, such as offering free or discounted preventive health, and won’t deny you for pre-existing health conditions. Prices vary, but you may qualify for reduced premiums based on your income.

College student healthcare

Not all colleges offer affordable healthcare insurance for college students, but those that do may require it for all students who attend. You may want to check if your school offers a health insurance plan by calling and asking or searching their website. Some colleges and universities have student health centers that act as small clinics with urgent care providers that can treat minor illnesses and injuries at little to no cost.

Medicaid

Independent students and those from low-income families may make too little to qualify for plans on the ACA Marketplace. In these cases, students are encouraged to seek assistance from their local Health and Human Services (HHS) department. Medicaid covers medical care in similar ways as commercial insurance, but there are some differences. 

Medicaid is a government-funded program that offers healthcare coverage that is often more affordable than commercial insurance. Medicaid programs often provide coverage to individuals who might not be able to afford commercial insurance.

If you qualify, you may even get help with unpaid medical bills you’ve received in the past few months. Pregnant women and those younger than 19 may be eligible for Medicaid, even if their income is higher than the income threshold. Eligibility for Medicaid varies by state.

College student healthcare resources

Looking for additional tools and tips for navigating health care in college? Consider these websites.

College student healthcare FAQ

How long can college students stay on a parent’s insurance?

If the student is a dependent, they can stay on their parent’s insurance as long as they allow them to or until they turn 26. If the student is not claimed as a dependent under their parent’s plan, they may need their own plan as an independent adult.

What are common college illnesses?

College students get sick with the same diseases the rest of adults do, but some are more likely to occur in a communal living setting. Princeton lists some common illnesses that college students may experience:

  • Allergies
  • Colds and flu
  • Conjunctivitis (“pink eye“)
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Mononucleosis
  • Stomach aches



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