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Students Say Harvard’s ‘Vague’ Coronavirus-Updated Health Plan Leaves Questions Unanswered

Harvard University Health Services has a location in the Smith Campus Center.
Harvard University Health Services has a location in the Smith Campus Center. By Delano R. Franklin
By Fiona K. Brennan and Ema R. Schumer, Crimson Staff Writers

After Harvard released guidance on how the coronavirus will affect University health plans, students said they remain uncertain about costs and complications associated with the new policies.

The University’s Student Health Insurance Plan will front all costs associated with COVID-19 tests and consultations that members receive at medical providers affiliated with Blue Cross Blue Shield, the health insurance company Harvard uses, according to a health insurance primer published on the University’s Health Program website last week.

The plan will also lift the preexisting six-visit limit cap on medically necessary visits outside of Harvard University Health Services and the 40-visit limit cap on mental health visits through July 31, 2020. HUHS also unveiled a temporary medical hardship fund that will reimburse selected students from $500 to $1,200 for out-of-pocket costs, not including pharmacy tabs.

Although the majority of students have left Cambridge, HUHS will remain open for urgent care from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, while other services will operate remotely. Students can also consult with a trained medical professional through a remote healthcare app, and appointments through Counseling and Mental Health Services and Behavioral Health will take place via phone.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that “HUHS is singularly focused on helping ensure the safety and wellbeing of every member of the Harvard community.”

“In line with that, and the University’s efforts to decrease the number of individuals on campus, HUHS has taken steps to temporarily enhance and adapt the terms of the [Student Health Insurance Plan] to ensure plan members are able to continue to access the health services they need, wherever they are located geographically at this time,” Newton wrote.

For all other medical services, standing copayment rates apply. They will vary, however, based on whether the medical provider is “in-system” — meaning that it is affiliated with Blue Cross Blue Shield — or it is “out-of-system” — providers which tend to charge higher rates. The Harvard website states members can search for in-network medical providers through a Blue Cross Blue Shield database online, and also advised members to “familiarize yourself with plan benefits before needing care.”

Harvard Ph.D. student Max G. Ehrenfreund said he believes the modifications Harvard made to its health care plan are necessary. Still, he said the University’s Health Program website is “vague” and does not clearly state how much members will have to pay for services. As a result, he said some Harvard families may incur significant medical costs because of the logistical complications finding in-system providers presents.

“If you’re traveling, you have to make a plan for where you’ll go if you get sick,” Ehrenfreund said. “I don’t think many undergraduates are going to do this. And as a result, some of them or at least their parents are going to be paying potentially really big medical bills.”

Ph.D. student Carleigh A. Beriont, who was traveling home to Hampton, N.H. on Tuesday, wrote in a text that she is concerned about the costs she will owe if she or her daughter — who is a dependent on her plan — need medical attention. She wrote that the closest in-network medical provider is 100 miles away.

“Mostly I’m worried about what might happen if one of us gets sick. She’s out of daycare now—so I’m not as worried about her getting sick in the immediate future. Just not sure what we’ll do if she gets sick,” Beriont wrote.

Some students said they appreciated HUHS offering medical advice remotely.

Peyton S. Williams ’23 said she appreciates the efforts HUHS has taken to help students get medical care as the healthcare system remains in flux. She said she is confident HUHS will continue to provide her medical advice even though she no longer lives in Cambridge.

“I think it’s good that they’re letting us contact them so that they can answer our questions and provide care over the phone, and they can still order us tests, come up with referrals,” she said. “I think they’re doing the best they can.”

Nicole M. Daurio ’20 said she will likely not personally benefit from medical attention over the phone. She said she has stopped using CAMHS’s services because therapy sessions via phone calls do not meet her personal needs. As a result, she said she will pay hundreds of dollars per 50 minute session.

“Online is great for a lot of people. It does not fit my needs. So I then canceled my three upcoming appointments,” she said.

Ehrenfreund, who previously reported on the Affordable Care Act for The Washington Post, said he thinks the FAQ fails to address several important questions about the state of student health plans.

He said that while he found several in-network hospitals near his home in Portland, Ore., he does not know to what degree insurance will foot the bill.

“I found three hospitals in Portland that are in-network, which is great news. But there’s a catch, which is that hospital cost choice sharing means that even for in-network hospitals, the hospital still determines the level of insurance for different services,” he said. “So even now, I still don’t know how much I’ll be paying if I have to go to one of those hospitals. I know that they’re insured, but I don’t know to what degree.”

Ehrenfreund also said that though he was happy to see HUHS remove the cap on appointments and mental health visits, it is unclear what costs, if any, members will have to pay for those additional visits.

“If they can make clear that reimbursement will not be required — that these costs will be covered in the clinic or at the hospital — that would be a real relief for a lot of people,” he added.

Newton wrote in his email that the healthcare system more broadly is changing rapidly to meet the public’s needs. Harvard members should regularly check Harvard’s website to learn of new coverage policies, he added.

“The current public health crisis is a rapidly evolving situation, with new guidance and regulations being issued on a near daily basis. With that, HUHS encourages SHIP members to continue to monitor the FAQs it has posted online for updates to the plan,” he wrote.

CLARIFICATION: March 19, 2020

A previous version of the Harvard University Health Services FAQ referenced in this article stated that urgent care services will remain open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The page has since been updated to reflect the correct hours — 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

—Staff writer Fiona K. Brennan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fionabrennan23.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.

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