College Health Plans Don't Always Cover Student Athletes

According to a new report, student athletes often end up paying for sports-related injuries.

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Many injured college athletes are being saddled with thousands of dollars in unexpected medical bills because the details of NCAA regulations requiring universities to insure their athletes are unclear, the New York Times reports.

Four years ago, the NCAA began enforcing a regulation that all collegiate student athletes needed insurance before they began competing. Some institutions meet these requirements by covering nearly 100 percent of an injured student athlete's medical expenses, but other schools claim almost no responsibility to pay such bills if a student has private insurance, according a review by the Times of public documents from a cross section of universities and interviews with current and former athletes, trainers, administrators, and NCAA officials.

"I thought I would be covered," says Erin Knauer, a Colgate University student who piled up $80,000 in medical bills after injuring her back and legs while training for the school's crew team. Because of the way her condition was diagnosed, insurance will cover only about one third of Knauer's bill.

Many student athletes have medical insurance through their parents, but often these plans exclude coverage of injuries sustained during participation in varsity sports and injuries that require out-of-state treatment. Some colleges purchase secondary policies to fill the gaps left by students' family plans, but even these plans have disclaimers that could leave students uncovered in some situations.

Those familiar with the lack of mandated, comprehensive coverage for collegiate athletes are calling for change, but it's unlikely the NCAA will alter its policies anytime soon because the cost of mandating coverage for all athletes would be extremely high. Some of the largest universities with the biggest, winningest, and best-known athletic teams provide comprehensive coverage for their athletes, but students playing sports at many other schools are not as lucky.

Former Ohio University football player Jason Whitehead injured himself so badly during a workout in 2001 that he was temporarily paralyzed and had be airlifted to a nearby hospital, according to the Times article. Whitehead took the bills from his career-ending surgery that were not covered by his father's insurance to the Ohio University trainers, but the school refused to pay. Whitehead, now 28, found out six years after his surgery that he still had a few thousand dollars in unpaid medical bills while reviewing paperwork to buy his first car.

"The coach says, 'You're on full scholarship. If you ever get hurt, we'll make sure to take care of you,' " he says. "There's a lot of us out there that get used."

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