Student finds loophole in health fee system

Portland State University graduate student Kary Alovah recently found a loophole in PSU’s health coverage system – completely by accident. Apparently, anyone who wants to can register for classes, buy PSU’s medical coverage, drop all their classes and still be eligible to use the health center.

Alovah didn’t drop all her classes, but she did tweak her schedule enough to stumble upon this quirk in PSU’s registration system. According to Alovah, she registered for 8 graduate-level credits before school started, a part-time class-load in tuition and fee terms. After attending one of the classes, she discovered she didn’t like it and decided to change her enrollment. She went online, added the class she wanted, then dropped the other. Alovah says the whole process didn’t take more than about 2 minutes. But that’s where the story gets interesting.

PSU offers basic medical and dental coverage to all students taking 4 or more credits. Students taking between 4 and 8 credits must purchase the basic coverage, but if you’re taking more than 9 credits, graduate or undergraduate, the fees are automatically charged to your account.

When Alovah added her new class, she was temporarily bumped up from 8 to 11 credits, making her eligible for the automatic charge for a brief period of time. Even though she then dropped the original class, which dropped her back down to part-time status, that temporary stint with more than nine credits alerted the Banner registration system to automatically charge the non-refundable student health fee to her account.

Alovah was surprised when she went to pay her tuition for fall term and saw the halth fee of $15.40 for the basic insurance plan and $20 for dental coverage. She currently has separate health insurance through her employer and doesn’t need to use PSU’s services.

Staff at the new Center for Student Health and Counseling said she still would be able to use the Center even though she had dropped down to part-time status as long as she had paid the fee. They referred her to PSU’s business office to see if she could get a refund.

At the business office, Alovah was informed that she couldn’t get a refund for the fee because she had already been billed. However, the bursar’s office later told the Vanguard they can look at individual situations, such as hers, and consider refunds.

She doesn’t mind paying the fee, and is actually considering using the dental plan, but expressed disbelief over the opportunity to exploit the system. “If all students knew about this, they’d just register for a bunch of classes and then drop them to get the coverage,” Alovah says.

In the business office, Pat Soto, PSU’s bursar, confirmed that the mandatory fee is assessed according to your class load on or after the first day of classes for all terms except summer. Unlike tuition, the fee is non-refundable because it’s relayed to the health insurance company and doesn’t stay on-campus.

The Banner registration system only considers the number of credits a student is registered for on – or after – the first day. Students can make all sorts of changes to their schedule before classes officially start, but if at any time after the first day they are registered for 9 or more graduate or 12 or more undergraduate credits, the health and dental fee are automatically charged to their account.

Banner is not set up to recognize a situation like Alovah’s. “There’s no way for the system to know that the student didn’t intend to be full-time,” Soto says. She also noted that to avoid being charged the mandatory fee, Alovah could have first dropped the undesired class, then added the one she wanted, keeping her below the 9-credit cutoff the whole time.

Soto noted that some students do completely drop out of school and are still allowed to use the medical coverage. She said that some drop out for medical reasons, in which case the medical coverage is even more necessary, but acknowledged that there are people who register and then drop just to use the health center.

Unfortunately, Banner is not set up to catch these students once the fee is assessed, but Soto estimates the number of students using the system in this way is relatively small. “It’s difficult to have a system to accommodate the 1-2% of students who will exploit it rather than the 98% of students who won’t,” she says.

Alovah’s situation does raise some important questions. The way the current system operates, students could register for full time credits, pay for the medical and dental coverage, drop all their classes and still use PSU’s health center, enabling them to qualify for health insurance indefinitely, even after graduation. The only charge other than the actual medical/dental fee would be for tuition.

For the first two weeks of the term, students get an 85% refund on all tuition charges and no refund for the medical/dental fees. The resident undergraduate charge for 9 credits is $1105, meaning it would cost about $200 to drop out of school and still retain health coverage. For a graduate student, 9 resident credits run $2545, costing just over $400 a term for medical coverage and no classes.

There are certainly cheaper, easier and less sneaky ways for students to obtain health coverage, but for those with no other choice, this is a viable option. Although it was not designed for this purpose, students now have a way to receive medical coverage, for a nominal fee, for the rest of their life.