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Penn State’s Lack Of Insurance Transparency Is Costing Students…Literally

This fall, Penn State is offering a suite of coronavirus testing options for students and employees, including walk-up spit testing and rapid nose swab tests.

Although the university’s efforts appear to be rigorous, a massive miscommunication from Penn State and University Health Services is costing students hundreds in some cases.

Costs vary for each coronavirus test. While random surveillance tests are always free of charge, other testing methods’ costs aren’t always clear.

“Because health insurers do not currently cover asymptomatic testing that is not medically indicated, the University also covers the cost of tests for asymptomatic students at the walk-up testing site,” Penn State spokesperson Wyatt DuBois said. “So students have access to free testing at the walk-up testing sites when they feel they need it.”

When students arrive at the HUB (and soon to be Pegula Ice Arena), they’re told to “skip” the part about insurance coverage in their registration. On the form, there’s no “skip” button, though. Students are basically asked to lie and say they don’t have insurance.

By clicking “no,” students effectively guarantee Penn State will pay for their test. If they didn’t, it’s unclear how much students, or their insurance providers, would need to pay.

The bigger miscommunication hits when students register for testing through myUHS.

Typically, by making an appointment through myUHS, students will schedule a nose swab test at the Eisenhower Parking Deck. DuBois said the appointments available to students through UHS are for symptomatic individuals or those who’ve come in contact with someone who tested positive.

“The testing done at University Health Services, which is for symptomatic students or those who have been identified as a close contact of an infected individual through contact tracing, is billed to the student’s health insurance provider, as is the case with all services performed at UHS,” DuBois said.

What DuBois didn’t clarify, however, is that the only way a student can guarantee a symptomatic test is to say they have mild symptoms. If a student were to indicate they have “worrisome” or “severe” symptoms, they’d need to make a telehealth appointment or seek emergency medical care, respectively. They would not be given the option for a regular symptomatic test.

Students can also voluntarily sign up for asymptomatic testing through UHS, however.

This confusion, at a time of already heightened stress for students, is dangerous. The bigger problem at hand, however, is miscommunication and uncertainty surrounding testing payments.

It’s unclear to students until the moment they walk up to testing at UHS that it’s not free. A sign on the table in the Eisenhower Parking Deck informs them that the test will be billed to their insurance.

The problem here? Not all students have health insurance, and some who do might be out of their insurance provider’s network at University Park.

As DuBois said, health insurers do not currently cover asymptomatic testing. However, students are still able to sign up for asymptomatic tests without any prompts or notifications that their insurance may not cover the tests. There are no red flags or flashing signs that these tests could cost students hundreds of dollars.

Each coronavirus test through UHS bills a student, or their insurance provider, $144. I didn’t even find out how much my bill cost until I happened to be scrolling through myUHS’ billing statements haphazardly. This information shouldn’t be tough to find and tucked away behind administrative bullshit.

“The university works with underinsured or uninsured students on an individual basis regarding UHS billing,” DuBois said. “For students who have Penn State’s student health insurance plan, it currently fully covers the cost of COVID testing when the test is FDA approved and follows CDC guidelines.”

It seems as though Penn State is urging transparency and responsibility on behalf of its students without upholding the same on its own end. Students may need to get authorization from their insurance providers for these tests, and if that fails, their bursar account could be charged without their knowledge.

Students headed to UHS may (although this is no guarantee) be asked to verify their insurance information ahead of their appointment. They most certainly are not told this test isn’t free until the moment they arrive.

Students signing up willingly for tests at UHS out of an abundance of caution and responsibility are left in the dark. Students without health insurance are urged to go to walk-up testing at the HUB — as those tests are paid for by the university — despite students with health insurance being told to “skip” (read: lie) the part about their coverage.

Look, it’s already a problem that some tests cost students money. But the bigger issue at hand is that students often times don’t have a clue.

$144 for one test may not seem high, but for some students in tense financial situations especially right now, it is a lot. This lack of information and notification on behalf of the university can be summed up in one word: disappointing.

Penn State’s lack of information and subpar notifications about these costs are, at best, disappointing. If the university wants to care about its students as much as it says it does, it needs to be upfront and candid about insurance — especially when coronavirus tests could save lives and keep students safe.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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