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UF, UCF Backing Student Insurance Requirement

Two of Florida’s largest universities are throwing their weight behind a proposal requiring students to have health coverage – likely boosting costs for thousands of uninsured students but potentially saving big money for cash-strapped state schools.

The University of Florida and University of Central Florida both are siding with the proposed mandatory insurance coverage, which state analysts conclude could increase attendance costs by as much as $1,250-a-year for full-time students.

At some Florida universities, more than 40 percent of students are uninsured, a state survey showed. And despite the upfront cost for students, the approach is worthwhile, say supporters, who bolstered their push by citing the national debate over health care.

“This report may serve as the catalyst for change and presents cogent rationale for (university officials) and state legislators to take action now to achieve for our students what will eventually occur for the vast majority of Americans,” UCF Vice-President Maribeth Ehasz wrote, supporting the analysis by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

But just as President Obama’s effort to craft a national health coverage system has endured a rocky track in Congress, the state university plan is drawing early criticism from key Florida lawmakers.

“This just may not be the best timing,” Senate Higher Education budget chair Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, told the News Service of Florida on Monday. “Students are paying more and everyone’s having a hard time finding enough money.”

The Florida Student Association has opposed making health coverage mandatory.

Lynn said, however, that if universities wanted individually to require students to carry health insurance, she had no problem with that.

Florida State University has had the mandatory insurance standard in place since 2007 and the OPPAGA report stemmed, in part, from legislation last spring that looked to expand the effort statewide.

But UCF and UF say it is important to have all 11 universities in the mix so that lower insurance premiums could be negotiated on policies now offered through the schools. Policies covering more students and including a larger risk pool could be cheaper, the schools maintain.

“We’re in favor of a systemwide approach,” Ehasz said Monday. “But not so much if it’s just one school trying to do it at a time.”

UF’s Dr. Phillip Barkley, director of the school’s student health care center, and Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice-president for student affairs, also underscored the savings potential to Florida universities.

“Implementing mandatory health insurance and defining adequate benefits will increase the enrollment to these plans and allow the universities to negotiate with insurers for competitive pricing,” they wrote OPPAGA.

Legislation last spring requiring state university students to have health coverage cleared the House on a 111-7 vote and was sponsored by 10 Republicans, led by Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, chair of the House’s Pre-K-12 budget committee. But it failed to advance in the Senate.

Supporters, likely to refile the measure next spring, kept the idea alive by getting OPPAGA to analyze the approach in the meantime.

Like most public policy measures at the Capitol, there’s the potential for private companies to make a buck.

The drive was pushed last spring by the Center for Student Health and Life, an Arlington, Va., company that was trying to position itself as a private vendor in the statewide effort. The firm could help process claims in exchange for a percentage of collections that state university officials said approached 40 percent.

But any potential cost increase for students is politically charged this upcoming election year. Last spring, the Legislature allowed all state universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year, until Florida’s rock-bottom tuition hits the national average, now about $7,000.

Tuition and fees at Florida universities range from $4,000 to $4,577 but last fall began their steady climb.

Legislators also decided that Bright Futures scholarships cover a fixed dollar amount -- $3,780 annually for full-time A-students and $2,850 for those with B averages. Students must pay whatever the scholarship doesn’t cover.

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