BYU-Idaho will allow students to use Medicaid, apologizes for causing ‘turmoil’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Wednesday January 17, 2018.

In a surprising reversal and with an apology “for the turmoil caused by our earlier decision,” Brigham Young University’s campus in Idaho announced Monday night that it will retract its new policy on health insurance and return to allowing students to use Medicaid.

The change came in an email sent campuswide less than two weeks after the school originally publicized the decision on Nov. 12. Shortly after that, hundreds of students had immediately and loudly criticized the university, with many saying they couldn’t afford other coverage and some saying they’d have to drop out over it.

The school noted that pushback as part of the reason behind its about-face.

“The well-being of our students and their families is very important to us,” administrators wrote in their notice. “We are grateful for the feedback we have received from our campus community and for the input of the local medical community. … We have decided that Medicaid, as it has in previous years, will meet the health coverage requirement at BYU-Idaho.”

(Photo courtesy of Reclaim Idaho) A screenshot of the email that BYU-Idaho administrators sent to students on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, reversing course on a Medicaid ban.

As many universities do, BYU-Idaho requires students to have health insurance before they can register for classes. For years at the private school owned by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Medicaid qualified as adequate coverage.

Unexpectedly this month, though, the university told students that they would no longer be allowed to enroll if Medicaid was their primary insurance. They would have to either buy another health care plan on the private market or sign up for coverage at the campus’ Student Health Center.

Plans there — which are administered by Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators, established by the LDS Church — cost $536 per semester for an individual or $2,130 for a family. Medicaid is free or low-cost coverage for low-income people who qualify, many of whom are students and parents.

The original decision came one day after Idaho received approval letters from the federal government for its Medicaid expansion plan, which voters in the state overwhelmingly supported last year. In January, Medicaid coverage will stretch from Idahoans earning less than 100% of the federal poverty level to 138% of that amount.

The school has largely refused to say why it made the policy change — or the reversal — but students heralded it Monday night as a major win.

“We are so relieved,” said Kaleigh Quick, a senior at BYU-Idaho.

She and her husband, Matt, had already deferred a payment on their car so they could get their kids Christmas gifts. With the Medicaid change, they were worried they’d have to use that money for the student plan at BYU-Idaho so Kaleigh Quick could finish her last seven classes.

“It feels like a huge weight off the shoulders,” she added. “We can go to school and not worry about the burden of health insurance.”

The student-led group Accept Medicaid BYU-I was largely behind the efforts to challenge the school’s policy change. Student joked on the organization’s Facebook page Monday night that now they’ll have to change their focus to get the university to accept beards (as an LDS Church-owned institution, facial hair is banned without a permit). Mostly, students celebrated, said they were crying with joy and planned to email thanks to administrators for backing down.

“I think it was really genuine and more humble than I thought it would be,” said student Amanda Emerson of the school’s reversal. “It was like they really swallowed their pride and did what they should have all along.”

(Photo courtesy of Tanner Emerson) Tanner Emerson, his wife, Amanda, and their daughter.

She and her husband, Tanner, are both on Medicaid, along with their daughter. Tanner Emerson added Monday night: “It’s still annoying that they didn’t offer an explanation, though.”

Amanda Emerson responded: “I’m not going to push it.”

The school, which sits in the small town of Rexburg, had largely refused to explain the change. Requests for comments for news reports have been denied. Staff at the Student Health Center declined to talk. And the spokesman for the LDS Church referred all questions back to the university.

Meanwhile, BYU’s main campus in Provo was not instituting a similar policy — even with Utah pursuing its own Medicaid strategy, which might end in a similar expansion.

After continued outcry from students, the Idaho campus suggested in an email last week that the policy was based on the state’s Medicaid expansion and a concern that students would overwhelm health care providers in the area. The message said: “Due to the health care needs of the tens of thousands of students enrolled annually on the campus of BYU-Idaho, it would be impractical for the local medical community and infrastructure to support them with only Medicaid coverage.”

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare disputed that reasoning, though, and a spokeswoman said, “There shouldn’t be any kind of problems with access for those folks.”

In its email reversing the decision Monday, the school noted it got the “input of the local medical community.” It also said that “because of limited capacity and scope of services,” its own Student Health Center would continue to not be a Medicaid service provider. That’s not a change, but for some, it reinforced their suspicions of why the school briefly changed its policy on insurance coverage.

“They should have left that part out,” said sophomore Kris Lasswell, who said he hasn’t been to a doctor in four years because he hasn’t had insurance. He will qualify for Idaho’s Medicaid expansion in January, he added. “That just shows the university was worried about losing money.”

Many students said they were frustrated by the idea of paying for the school’s insurance plan when they’re already covered under Medicaid. Some questioned whether the university or the church was trying to make more money from them. Now, the BYU-Idaho plans might see a drop in enrollment as some newly qualified students switched over to Medicaid after the expansion.

Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators, or DMBA, is a private, nonprofit trust that manages benefits for many church-owned enterprises. Since it’s not an insurance company, it doesn’t have to comply with federal requirements for coverage. Its health plans are not considered minimum essential coverage under the nationwide Affordable Care Act.

DMBA plans at the school have a $370,000 annual cap on care — while limits such as that have been banned under federal plans. They don’t include care for pregnancies for a student’s spouse who doesn’t go to school, which many of the student families on Medicaid need.

Lasswell’s wife, Naomi, is expecting a baby and wouldn’t have been covered by his student health plan. He was considering having to drop out of school over it.

“They really didn’t handle this well,” he said.

Idaho’s Medicaid is expected to cover 2,400 more individuals in Rexburg beginning in January, including Lasswell. And he’s grateful for the reversal that will allow him to enroll with that coverage alone.

“Overall, though, it’s great to see a school like BYU-Idaho made a reversal based on its students,” Lasswell added. “At the end of the day, I feel like they made the right call."