Explore Health Insurance Options for Grad Students

Getting coverage through a parent’s health plan or though your school are two options for grad students.

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Whether you stay on a parent’s plan or purchase your own, health insurance is a must for graduate students.
Whether you stay on a parent’s plan or purchase your own, health insurance is a must for graduate students.

This week we address the sixth in a series of questions that admitted graduate school students often ask with information about purchasing health insurance.

Health insurance can be an overwhelming topic, especially if this is the first time you are thinking about it. Most undergraduate students receive health care through their parents. Those out of college and working are typically covered through their employers.

Student health insurance plans are offered by institutions, private companies and by government agencies, and vary greatly in cost and coverage. As you contemplate your options, here are some questions to ask.

[Get tips on paying for graduate school.]

1. Do I really need health insurance? The answer is yes! Unforeseen medical expenses, even those related to treating a cold or the flu, can cost in the hundreds of dollars. You do not want to be broadsided with a medical situation or emergency for which you do not have financial coverage.

In my years as a dean of students, I saw many students experience a health crisis. Some were taken ill very suddenly; others faced the return of an illness that had been in remission. Those without health insurance were at grave risk financially, which only added to the stress they experienced over missing classes and falling behind academically.

[Find money for graduate school with these tips.]

2. What do I need to know? Generally, if you are under the age of 26, you may be able to stay on your parents' plan. That's a good option if you have a pre-existing medical condition or will be attending graduate school in the same state in which your parents live.

You may also purchase an individual or group health insurance plan on your own, and your options are going to vary from state to state. Depending on where you will be enrolled, you may have some pretty affordable options, especially if you are younger and healthy. Check with a local insurance agent to explore your choices.

Keep in mind, however, that you could potentially be declined coverage based on any pre-existing medical conditions you have.

Your school will most likely have a health plan for graduate students, but some school-sponsored plans are better than others. Be aware of any limitations placed on your coverage each year and check to see if you are limited to doctors available through the student health center.

There are some individually purchased health plans specifically designed for students. Some of these plans provide good benefits and flexibility that might come in handy if you will be traveling between two states.

New international students – those who hold an F-1 or J-1 United States visa – are generally required to purchase health insurance. In most instances this is nonnegotiable. An international student's best option, by far, is to be in touch with both the campus international student and student health office to get more information about the U.S. health care system.

[Learn how students can avoid getting sick.]

3. What do most acceptable student health insurance plans include? Students should expect that plans offer minimum coverage per year (i.e., $500,000) and will have an annual deductible, a fixed amount you pay each year for services before your insurance plan takes over.

Plans should offer coverage for inpatient and outpatient services anywhere in the U.S. as well as overage for inpatient and outpatient mental health services, physical therapy and prescription drugs.

4. What other questions should I be asking? There are a number of things students should know about their coverage, including when it starts and if they are covered over the summer or when they are not attending classes. Find out if coverage will lapse if a student withdraws or graduates, and if there is a grace period.

Ask also if you are required to use specific medical doctors, hospitals or clinics to be covered, and if so, find out if any are located near campus. If you plan to study abroad or do a foreign exchange, find out if you will be covered there.