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Princeton eliminates free telehealth coverage under Student Health Plan due to end of NJ’s ‘public health emergency’

<h5>McCosh Health Center</h5>
<h6>Julian Gottfried / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
McCosh Health Center
Julian Gottfried / The Daily Princetonian

As of July 3, 2021, the University has stopped offering free telehealth and teletherapy to students on the Student Health Plan (SHP), sparking criticism from many undergraduate and graduate students who are insured by the plan.

Students were not officially informed of the change, aside from a notice posted to the University Health Services (UHS) website on June 29 announcing “updates” to the plan. Many feel that the elimination of pandemic-era enhancements to their healthcare coverage comes too soon.

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“Most families who were affected by COVID are still being affected by COVID, and probably will be for the rest of their lives,” SHP enrollee MC Otani ’22 said.

Since August 2020, the SHP has been expanded to include a variety of temporary accommodations for student policyholders: no referral requirement for off-campus care, free coverage for COVID-19 testing and hospitalizations, and free coverage of all telehealth and telemedicine, among others.

According to an archived summary of SHP benefits, these provisions were set to expire under one of two conditions: either through July 31, or “if the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration or the national emergency declaration is ended.” On July 4, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order declaring an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency, fulfilling the second condition.

“Last year, we implemented modifications to the Student Health Plan related to COVID-19, as mandated by federal and state legislation,” Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told The Daily Princetonian on Friday. “When the New Jersey Public Health Emergency ended July 4, we removed some of these modifications.”

On Friday, the UHS website was updated to further amend the stated expiration dates for changes to the SHP. As of Friday evening, the provisions granting 100% coverage of telehealth services and increased coverage of out-of-network services have both expired, with the listed end dates of July 6. Extensions of coverage due to disability will last through July 31, and referrals for off-campus care are not required until after Aug 31.

It is unclear why the previously listed end date of July 3 has been changed to July 6.

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Hotchkiss emphasized that the SHP will continue to provide “coverage at 100% for all COVID-19 testing, hospitalizations, and vaccines and related services as required by the federal CARES Act,” and that this coverage will continue as long as required by federal regulation.

A similar message about COVID-19 care was sent to SHP members at 6:32 p.m. on Friday evening.

Undergraduate Student Response

Several students have expressed frustration with the move, arguing that an end to extreme pandemic conditions does not entail an end to mental health struggles.

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“Although it's wonderful that the University can ease restrictions on gatherings and masks because of vaccinations, the mental health effects of the pandemic are so much more permanent,” Annette Lee ’23 told the ‘Prince.’ “Especially after everything that happened this past semester, it's really sad to see something that helped so many people I know go away with such short notice.”

Hilcia Acevedo ’23, who is enrolled in the SHP, told the ‘Prince’ that given the many inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, the policies eliminated on July 3 should be restored.

“The University should bear in mind the long lasting effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have … particularly for low-income students,” she wrote. “In the same way [that] lectures should continue to be recorded and uploaded onto Canvas when we return to normal, the co-pay should continue to be waived. It’s about accessibility.”

Students on the SHP also noted that they were not officially informed about the change in policy.

Otani told the ‘Prince’ that they learned about the change in coverage through their off-campus therapist, who mentioned at the end of a recent teletherapy session that a copay would now be required. Acevedo found out through Twitter.

“We regret any confusion these changes have caused students,” Hotchkiss wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “We plan to add an additional staff member to the Student Health Plan office over the coming academic year, and increased communications with plan participants will be one of the goals of that position.”

Both Otani and Acevedo told the ‘Prince’ that they will continue to get mental health care through the SHP, despite the added cost.

“I still plan on utilizing the services I get through the SHP because they’re integral to my physical and mental health,” Acevedo wrote. “But this will drastically impact my finances since a significant portion of my student work wages will now have to go towards covering the cost of copays.”

“The cost-benefit for therapy is definitely worth the $15 copay,” Otani said. “But if you do it every week, it builds up. I think I might start doing it biweekly now.”

Graduate Student Advocacy

On Tuesday, members of Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) sent an open letter to several administrators voicing their concerns about the cut to SHP coverage.

There are approximately 3,000 graduate students enrolled at the University, and all are required to be on the Student Health Plan.

Addressed to Associate Dean for Student Life Lisa Schreyer, Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun, Acting Dean of the Graduate School Cole Crittenden, and the Student Health Plan Office, the letter asserts that despite the improved public health landscape in New Jersey, the pandemic is not yet over. It also emphasizes the “deep inequalities” the pandemic has brought to light.

“This crisis has not passed for many international graduate and undergraduate workers, immunocompromised people and people with chronic health issues, caregivers, and people continuing to deal with the financial, emotional, and physical setbacks of the pandemic,” PGSU wrote.

Since the height of the pandemic’s “third wave” in winter 2020-21, nationwide vaccine rollout has contributed to a major reduction in the spread of COVID-19 — from a one-day peak of 300,000 new cases on Jan. 8 to just 16,000 on July 8.

Still, the recent surge in cases caused by the Delta variant, a highly transmissible form of COVID-19, has raised concerns of a “dangerous” fourth wave this fall.

“In light of the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19, we urge the Office of Student Life and the Student Health Plan Office to reverse the health care cuts made as of July 3, 2021,” the letter states. “These cuts will result in negligible savings for the University, but real financial and medical consequences for graduate workers.”

The PSGU letter also invokes a recent racist event on campus — the discovery of a noose at a University construction site — as evidence that students, particularly “Black, Indigenous, Muslim, Latinx, and Asian students and workers,” are in particular need of mental health counseling.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ PGSU wrote that they “cannot fathom” the reasoning behind the July 3 cut to SHP offerings.

“The pandemic has taken an enormous toll ... on grads’ collective well-being, which makes it all the more offensive that the administration would roll back healthcare benefits without even bothering to make an announcement,” they wrote. “It is hard to interpret this decision as anything other than an expression of contempt for graduate students and the work that we do to keep this University running.”

The Office of Communications did not say whether the PSGU should expect a response to their letter.

Editor’s Note: This article previously stated that the UHS notice was posted on July 29. It was posted on June 29. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error. 

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