Change to health insurance could increase costs for students, will remove price limit on outpatient mental health treatment


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Searle Hall, home to University Health Service. Northwestern renegotiated its plan with Aetna to lower the cost of mental health treatment after students expressed concern over initial changes to the 2019-2020 plan.

Cameron Cook, Reporter

Northwestern has removed a cap on mental health appointment copays as part of its insurance plan for the 2019-2020 academic year, which may increase the out-of-pocket cost for students and employees seeking treatment.

Outpatient mental health treatment — which Aetna, the University’s insurance provider, defines as “outpatient mental disorders treatment office visits to a physician or behavioral health provider” — used to be capped at $20 for appointments in-network. That cap has been removed, and patients will now pay a 20 percent coinsurance for the visit, regardless of cost. Appointments will now cost about $33 on average.

Out-of-network costs could be higher too. During the 2018-2019 year, patients with out-of-network providers were responsible for a $20 copay on mental health treatment, but insurance would cover 100 percent of the recognized charge beyond that cost. As part of the new policy, the insurance plan will only cover 60 percent of the charge.

The change was made as a “result of a regulatory compliance requirement for Aetna, which required that certain benefits for both mental and physical health services be subject to the same coinsurance amount,” according to an email The Graduate School sent to its students on September 10.

“Northwestern worked with Aetna to evaluate alternative options to satisfy the compliance requirement, and this change was identified to be the most cost-effective and least disruptive solution,” the email said.

Other solutions would have “either substantially raised the insurance premium cost for all students or possibly create new access barriers for students to receive care,” a University spokesperson told The Daily in an email.

Aetna was selected as Northwestern’s insurer because it offered “the most robust” coverage for mental health treatment, the spokesperson added.

Kitty Yang, a fifth-year graduate student and organizing member of Northwestern Graduate Workers, said she found out about the change from her therapist, who offered to work with graduate students in case the cost increase was a burden.

“We have heard nothing from the administration, who continue to ignore the lack of mental health resources actually offered to both undergrads and grads,” she told The Daily in an email. “NUGW is committed to making sure that Northwestern acts in the best interest of its students and workers, not its bottom line.”

Yang added that if NUWG were allowed to formally unionize, changes like this couldn’t happen, because the University wouldn’t be able to act unilaterally.

Northwestern has come under fire in the past for mishandling what students consider a mental health crisis, prompting a protest and the formation of Fund Our Care Collective, a group dedicated to improving students’ well-being.

Fund Our Care called the removal of the price cap another example of how the University hasn’t prioritized low-income students in a statement to The Daily.

“NU does not value or take care of their low income students, as customers of the school we are a lower priority,” members of the Collective wrote.

This story was updated with information from The Graduate School and comment from a University spokesperson.

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