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Best health insurance options for college students

Different health insurance alternatives for independent workers who occupy the gig economy

Reading and research: These are some of the fundamental basics of college life.

But some students might not realize that homework could be required before they even reach campus. A millennials’ first attempt of “adulting” might revolve around researching and comparing student health insurance plans.

Most colleges and universities require enrolled full-time students to prove they have health insurance coverage while attending school.

There are many insurance options on the market, so this guide will help you determine what type of health plan might be the best fit for your particular situation while you hit the books.

Let’s look at the different types of insurance available to you, starting with short-term health insurance.

What is short-term health insurance?

College student health insurance options come in all shapes and sizes, but short-term health insurance is becoming a popular option for college kids.

Short-term health insurance, also known as temporary insurance, is a health insurance plan that you can purchase for as little as 30 days or up to 364 days (depending on your state) to fill gaps in insurance coverage. It offers benefits for doctor office visits, hospitalizations, surgery, and other common health issues that could happen during the school year.

Short-term health insurance plans also use the same insurance terms you may already be familiar with: deductible, coinsurance, and copay. But short-term health insurance plans do not cover all of the same benefits that an Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) plan would, like pre-existing conditions or maternity care. That’s why short-term insurance premiums tend to be lower in cost.

What are the advantages of short-term health insurance?

You can enroll anytime. If you want to purchase a permanent major medical plan from the ACA (“Obamacare”), you can only enroll during the open enrollment period, which typically runs between Nov. 1 - Dec. 15 each year (depending on your state).

If your school offers a health insurance plan, it may be available to full-time students only.

But with short-term health insurance, you can apply any time of the year, and the number of credits you’re taking at school won’t matter.

It’s affordable. Short-term health insurance is considered temporary health insurance, meaning you can’t keep the same policy for the rest of your life. It’s meant for the here and now, which makes it much more affordable for students (or parents) on a budget.

Another reason short-term is affordable insurance for students is because of what it does (and doesn’t cover). Not having to pay for types of services like maternity benefits helps drive the cost of this particular insurance down.

But plans do differ, so it’s key to remember that you get what you pay for. If one short-term medical plan is $75 less than another, do a side-by-side plan comparison to better understand what coverage you wouldn’t get through the less expensive plan. For example, a less expensive plan may have a higher deductible or exclude gallbladder surgery; a more expensive plan might have a low deductible or cover more conditions.

Applying is quick and easy. Applying for short-term health insurance for college students can be done in a matter of minutes.You just enter your demographic information, answer a few medical questions, and decide how you want to pay for your short-term plan. If your application is approved, coverage can start as early as the next day, or you can select a start date closer to the time you’ll be heading to school.

You can customize coverage around the school calendar. Since this is low-cost health insurance for your academic calendar, you aren’t forced to purchase coverage for an entire 12-month calendar year. Many students select an August or September start date and terminate their coverage at the end of May - especially if they have other coverage options available to them at the end of the school year.

No worries about seeing a doctor in a specific PPO network. Most short-term medical insurance plans are all-access, meaning, there is no specific PPO network you have to adhere to. While some short term plans will cover more of your bill for certain provider networks, you have the option of choosing your provider.

How long does short-term health insurance coverage last?

Every state sets the rules for how long you can keep temporary health insurance. A handful of states do not allow short-term health insurance to be sold, others restrict short-term medical plans to no more than 90 days of coverage, while others permit longer periods of coverage, from 180 days to 364 days - almost a full year.

When does short-term health insurance make sense?

When researching and comparing health plans for students, be sure to look at the plan details, plus exclusions and limitations. Consider what’s most important to your health.

Let’s look at two examples:

Makayla lives the gold standard for a healthy 19-year old. She enjoys her morning run and gets plenty of sleep - even at school. She also prefers a healthy diet and doesn’t participate in the midnight pizza runs her roommates are known to do. She typically goes to her doctor for an annual checkup before the school year begins. And if she catches a bad cold, she might stop by the health office on campus but doesn’t feel the need to make an appointment with a board-certified doctor.

Makayla decided to purchase a low-cost short-term health insurance plan because she’s healthy and doesn’t anticipate using the insurance during the school year, but has coverage - just in case.

Tyler is the opposite of Makayla. Tyler is a 20-year old college student who likes wings, pizza, burgers - pretty much anything in the cafeteria. His only form of exercise is walking to class so he has gained weight while at school. His doctor at home has recommended losing weight because he’s already pre-diabetic. Tyler also gets sick a lot, perhaps from the junk food and lack of sleep. He prefers to go to the doctor every time he gets sick and has prescriptions to help treat his conditions.

After looking at health insurance options with his parents, Tyler takes his parent’s advice to enroll in major medical health insurance coverage with unlimited doctor office copays and prescription drug coverage. While more expensive than short-term medical coverage, major medical insurance is a better fit for Tyler and might save his family money in the long run.

Before choosing short-term health insurance

If you’re leaning towards a short-term health insurance plan, consider your individual needs. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I need prescription drug coverage?
  • Am I a student-athlete?
  • Do I anticipate going to the doctor frequently?
  • Do I prefer a low deductible plan?

It’s also vital to be sure the coverage you’ve selected is the coverage required by your school. Some schools require full-time students to carry a major medical plan that complies with the ACA. Meanwhile, other schools may require students to provide a waiver to prove they have health insurance that’s equivalent to the health plan offered directly by the school.

The last thing to keep in mind: Let’s say you buy a short-term health insurance plan in the state your college is in, but then, you go home or intern in another state for a certain duration of time. You may need a new short-term medical plan because you’ve switched states.

Still, coverage terms are flexible and switching plans is relatively easy.

Other health insurance options for students

While short-term medical insurance can be an affordable solution for college students, it’s not required to meet the federal standards of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). If you know that you need ongoing health care, prefer the breadth of coverage an ACA plan offers, or have a pre-existing condition that would deter you from short-term health insurance, you have four options:

1. Stay on your parent’s plan.

Under the ACA, you’re allowed to stay on your parent’s health insurance plan at least until age 26 (some states require/allow staying on parents’ plans longer). If your parent has health insurance through an employer or on their own, you’re fine to stay with the coverage you have.

One caveat: Your parent’s plan may not provide out-of-network benefits if you attend college in a different state. Check with the health insurance company before you make a decision and determine what is and isn’t covered if an unexpected accident or illness happens while you’re at school. Otherwise, you can go to your doctor when you’re home for winter or spring breaks.

If you need to find health insurance for college students over 26 years of age, there are still more options listed below.

2. See if your college or university offers an endorsed plan.

Many colleges offer endorsed health plans for students, so you should check with your school to see if that’s an option. Just remember to examine the plan to confirm it has the benefits that are important to you, like doctor office copays or prescription drug benefits.

If you haven’t received health insurance information from your college or university, you can contact the admission office or on-campus health department to see if they participate in a specific student plan.

3. Buy an ACA plan from the federal marketplace.

As a college student, you have the option to compare plans and sign up for insurance coverage through the ACA Health Insurance Marketplace. You can sign up for an ACA plan on the federal marketplace exchange during the open enrollment period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15.

ACA plans are required to cover the 10 essential health benefits, so their level of coverage might be more extensive than some of the other options we're covering. As examples, an ACA plan might be a good choice if you have a specific medical condition like diabetes, or if you're pregnant or anticipate becoming pregnant.

It’s also worth noting that you could be eligible for a financial subsidy to help reduce the cost of your health insurance plan during the school year, if your parents are willing to disclose their financial information.

4. Look at the private marketplace.

The “private” marketplace has many health insurance options to choose from. You can find private plans online, through an independent insurance agent, or directly from a health insurance company.

Choosing health insurance might be one of your first major financial decisions in life, so we're here to help you make an informed choice.

Our plan comparison tool gives you the power to search for short-term health insurance plan options and set filters based on the monthly costs, deductibles, and benefit maximums. Shop around to get the right coverage and price that works for you.

(Note: AgileHealthInsurance does not provide plan comparisons for private, school-based plans - only short-term health insurance plans).