Lawmakers’ Displeasure over MSU Policy Draws School Officials to Capitol

Feb 14, 2012

A new policy at Michigan State University is generating heat at the state capitol.  

Starting with this year’s freshman class, MSU became the state’s first public university to mandate health insurance for students.  Some GOP lawmakers say the policy adds costs that put college out of reach.  The university says it enhances access by safeguarding students whose education could be derailed by the cost of a serious illness. WKAR’s Mark Bashore takes a look at the dispute.

Typically, around 90% of incoming students arrive at MSU with health coverage.  Most often, it's a family policy.  But Michigan State is now the sixth school in the Big Ten requiring students be insured.  School spokesman Kent Cassella says that in the 2010-2011 plan year, 29 MSU students filed catastrophic claims.

"That mean $25,000 or more," he says. "Fortunately, all 29 of those students had health insurance.  If they did not, they would be facing some significant costs there."

It’s here that a tug-of-war begins between proponents of mandatory policies and legislators like Republican state representative Bob Genetski. 

“Tuition bills are long and expensive enough as it is,” he says.

As Chairman of the House Education Appropriation subcommittee, Genetski will question MSU officials on the policy tomorrow morning. He says the added cost of mandatory insurance risks making college unaffordable for more young people.

“We know that the very price of college is a barrier to entry to a lot of students getting a higher education,” he maintains. “You tack one more thing on and it’s just one more detriment to people enrolling, taking classes and graduating.”

Another part of the dispute involves financing.  Supporters point out that by making health coverage mandatory, the cost can become part of a student loan package.  Again, Michigan State’s Kent Cassella.

“If we did not make it a requirement, those students would not be able to do that and  then would have trouble coming up with the money to find health insurance,” he says.

Representative Genetski counters that the option only leads to more student debt after graduation.

“If they’re able to put that on to their federal loans and subsidize more debt, over four years that could be about six-thousand dollars more debt that a student’s going to graduate with that a student specifically did not ask for,” he continues.

Critics are annoyed with other aspects of the move.  Freshmen who hadn’t declared they were already covered by January 31 were automatically enrolled in the school’s new policy.  Genetski says some families didn’t learn of this until they noticed a new $900 charge on their winter tuition bills.  MSU says it first notified incoming students of the plan last summer and several times since. Still, it’s extended the deadline to February 29.

Not unlike the federal “Affordable Care Act,” the policy requires the purchase of insurance.  This year, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether this “individual mandate” violates the constitution.  If the court overturns so-called “Obamacare,” would that dial up the political heat on MSU’s mandatory policy? Lisa DeMoss--Director of the Graduate Insurance Law Program at Cooley Law School—says it could.

“Certainly if the Supreme Court determines that the commerce clause cannot be read so expansively, then it gives weight to the personal liberty argument that the conservatives make.” 

She calls that--quoting--“an important philosophical aspect of the right’s political agenda.”  The high court is scheduled to begin oral arguments in the case next month with a ruling expected sometime this year. 

Closer to home, several MSU officials including Provost Kim Wilcox are scheduled to appear before Representative Genetski’s subcommittee tomorrow morning. Given the differing views, the session could be a downsized variation of the contentious national debate.