Many international students struggle to pay medical bills without health insurance

Many international students are without health insurance and left vulnerable to accrue massive debts, according to Director of International Students and Scholar Services Tracy Nakajima.

Although insurance is commonly mandated for international students by universities across the country, as of Jan. 2011, university health care is no longer required for international students at Central Michigan University.

The policy change at CMU makes it optional for international students to purchase health insurance. As a result, many international students on campus are left uninsured.

Nakajima said international students fall into two distinct groups with regards to health care coverage.

The first group, which comprises 25 percent of international students on campus, are students with scholarships that include payment for insurance coverage, as well as those with J-1 status, who are required to obtain health insurance. The second includes those who are not required to carry health insurance, and, according to Nakajima, many do not.

“F-1 students have the freedom to choose their own policy or choose whether or not to even have a policy,” Nakajima said. "Unfortunately ... they don’t realize they need a health plan usually until something happens to them or someone they know.”

Nakajima said it is not a problem of affordability.

As required by both J-1 and F-1 visas, students must prove they have sufficient income to attend CMU and stay in the United States.

Nakajima said the amount required is roughly $30,000 a year. Part of that money accounts for whether or not students have the money to afford a health plan, among various other things.

The university health insurance plan costs $1,855 annually. The price increases with regards to spouses and children.

President of the International Student Organization and international graduate student Ibrahim Neyazmuhammed said, although health insurance is not required, the CMU health department and the Office of International Affairs strongly encourage international students to purchase insurance during orientation.

However, international graduate student Adam Sampiev said the information provided at orientation only does so much.

"When students come here from other countries ... they aren't aware of the health system; they don't have all the information necessary to pick the right one," Sampiev said. "... Making the wrong choice could cost you hundreds of dollars. It isn't possible for you to make the right decision."

Sampiev said living in the U.S. without health insurance is impossible because of the steep price.

But, he knows several students who do live without it.

"It's quite a common problem ... There was a student who had an arm fracture ... He didn't go to the hospital, because he couldn't afford it," Sampiev said. "He made a bandage by himself."

Sampiev said the problem has little to do with the university but has more to do with America's health care system. Sampiev's insurance, which is separate from the university, does not pay all of his health insurance bills.

He is often left paying about 20 percent of the cost. The bills, which can take months to arrive, have him worried. He leaves for Russia in July and is afraid he will still be paying medical bills when he arrives home.

Sampiev said international students who have the university plan also find it expensive. The university plan does not cover all of the costs of a hospital visit.

"We don't have much of a say," Sampiev said. "We will not be able to do anything about it, we are short time visitors. To be able to form an interest group in order to change something isn't possible."

Many international students still approve of CMU's decision to keep health insurance optional for international students.

Roberto Herrera Lopez, a freshman international student, said it is important to give international students the freedom to make their own choices.

"My biggest advice to the university is to keep the policy in play for the (upcoming) years," Lopez said.


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