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International students say health insurance plan poses challenges


By Rishab Ramapriyan     9/26/18 1:43am

Peter Tang (Duncan ’18) said no one should ever have to experience what he did while trying to obtain urgent dental care as an international student at Rice — waiting outside the University of Texas Dental School Student Clinic at 4 a.m. for his wisdom tooth.

“Unlike most of people who can make an appointment with their dentist, I had to pick the low cost route because [my international student] health insurance plan does not cover normal dental issues,” Tang said. 

Sandra Bloem-Curtis, director of international compliance and administration at the Office of International Students and Scholars, said international students who have visas sponsored by Rice are required to enroll in either the Rice University Aetna plan or a lower-cost, approved alternative plan offered by Student Assurance Services. The Aetna plan for international students is the same plan offered to all undergraduate students, while the SAS plan, which Tang was on, is specifically designed for international students. 

According to Bloem-Curtis, 889 international undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled in the Aetna plan, while 795 are enrolled in the SAS plan.

“Both plans are comparable in value though differ in premiums,” Bloem-Curtis said. “Both ensure all international students sponsored by Rice are adequately covered in the event of an illness, need for medical evacuation or repatriation.”

According to Tang, the biggest challenge international students face is the lack of coverage for dental care. Bloem-Curtis said neither the Aetna plan nor the SAS plan provide coverage for dental treatment. According to Bloem-Curtis, any student, domestic or international, may always choose to enroll in a separate dental insurance policy or they may seek low cost dental treatments.

While neither plan covers the cost of dental treatment, Bloem-Curtis said the Aetna plan offers a dental discount program as an added benefit, and the SAS plan offers enrollees access to free dental treatment on a first-come, first-served basis twice a year by a dentist who makes visits to campus. 

However, Tang said the once-a-semester dentist visits are insufficient. 

“A per-semester dental clinic, which you sign up first come, first-serve, for like 40 spots, is just not enough,” Tang said. “Especially for college kids when wisdom teeth are coming out, it's just very hard for them. [Domestic] students can go see their own dentist with parent's healthcare coverage, but international students can rarely make a trip back home and do it at home.”

Tang said he has never been able to use the semester dental visits not only due to lack of spots, but also due to poor communication. 

“The current system is also not the best for signing up for dental checkup,” Tang said. “I have talked to OISS about improving it, [and] what they did was sending out a warning email saying when the sign up link will be open, but it is not good enough. I was finally able to get a spot fall semester senior year, and the doctor never emailed me anything. I have never, once, in my four year, benefited from this dental free check up.”

Shryans Goyal, an international student, said the limited plan options for international students should be expanded. 

“International students are forced to choose from just two of Rice approved plans, out of which one has significantly reduced benefits, and the other can be too expensive,” Goyal, a Will Rice College sophomore, said. “For example, international students are offered dental care twice a year only. Most students are unable to make the allotted times and this is all because the cheaper insurance option does not cover dental care.”

Bloem-Curtis said the OISS and Office of Risk Management work to ensure effective coverage of insurance plan options. Bloem-Curtis said both the Aetna plan and the SAS plan have maximum out-of-pocket expenses that students have to pay — $4000 per individual per year and $2500 per individual per year, respectively. 

“These limits are set to reduce possible financial burden should a student find him [or] herself in need of significant medical treatment,” Bloem-Curtis said. 

Bloem-Curtis said any international student facing significant unforeseen financial burden may speak with an OISS advisor to discuss additional financing options. According to Bloem-Curtis, students are encouraged to seek medical treatment from providers within their health insurance network, which have been compiled by the OISS, to ensure cost effectiveness.

Bloem-Curtis said she is confident Rice’s policies are consistent with most universities’ policies for international students, and international students at Rice should not feel at a disadvantage if they are well-informed.

“Just as Rice provides a quality education to all of its students, it must provide quality health insurance options for its students,” Bloem-Curtis said. “Part of the cost of an education in the [United States] is a health insurance program that provides appropriate coverage.”

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