When Briana Mercado found out her student health insurance plan would increase by nearly $700 this academic year, she was blindsided.

The annual price of the University of Maryland’s student health insurance plan for the 2022-23 academic year increased from $1,694 to $2,334. The roughly 38 percent jump marks the largest cost increase for SHIP coverage at this university in a decade.

Mercado, a senior biochemistry major, relies on this university’s student health insurance plan because the university does not accept her family’s insurance plan. This year’s cost increase redefined how Mercado planned her finances for the fall semester — forcing her to choose between picking up extra shifts at work, finding a better paying job or piling the extra cost onto her other student loans.

Every undergraduate student at this university enrolled in at least six credits and every full-time graduate student is required to have health insurance to maintain their attendance. Students found out about this year’s cost increases in June 2022 without any advance notice.

“Seeing such a drastic increase without any student input was just shocking. I felt like we weren’t really listened to,” Mercado said. “It’s more affordable for the university but not more affordable for the students attending it.”

This university switched from Blue Cross Blue Shield to Aetna as the primary student insurance provider after a competitive bid from different providers earlier this year, according to university President Darryll Pines. The change was “the best choice” for this university and students who rely on it for insurance coverage, Pines said.

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“It’s unfortunate that the cost is a little bit higher than what we would like to have been, but it was done all aboveboard and done well,” Pines said. “The general cost of health care has gone up for all American citizens throughout the nation, and of course in the state of Maryland, so I don’t think we’re immune to that.”

The average health insurance premium for a single person has grown by 18 percent since 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues.

More than 4,600 students currently rely on SHIP coverage to maintain their studies at this university — a 10-year high enrollment figure. Many students at this university who rely on SHIP, such as Mercado, need it because their families don’t have health insurance that is approved by this university.

For many, an extra few hundred dollars can be the difference in whether they are able to continue their studies at this university, said Ana Baide, a junior computer science major who relies on SHIP due to her international student status.

“My dad was like, ‘Shit, we have to get this amount of money already for your tuition, and you’re telling me it’s almost $700 more?’” Baide said.

Students have the option to pay their health insurance balance off by semester or in multiple payments as a way to relieve the burden of the plan’s increased cost, University Health Center Director Spyridon Marinopoulos said in a statement.

But the university’s expectation that any of its students who rely on SHIP can shoulder such an increase – with a payment plan or not – is unrealistic, Sash Lamba, a sophomore computer science major, said.

“If I had to use one word … it’s gonna be exploitative,” he said. “

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The burden of the SHIP price increases falls disproportionately on this university’s most vulnerable students, including international students such as Baide and Lamba. These students don’t have options such as staying on a family health insurance plan or entering the U.S. insurance marketplace on their own, Lamba said.

“It is another policy which is gonna favor people who are not that strapped for cash, who are just more privileged,” Lamba said. “I would not be surprised if this $700 was just … enough amount for someone to drop a semester or drop out of college.”

As an international student, Lamba’s only choice is to take SHIP coverage — regardless of its cost – or discontinue his studies because of the lack of alternatives.

The lack of help for students who don’t have reliable family insurance plans, coupled with this year’s price increase, is “ridiculous,” Baide said. When she transferred to this university and could no longer rely on her insurance plan from her home country of Honduras, Baide attempted to find coverage alternatives that were tailored to international students. But each time she presented a different plan to this university’s health center, they denied it, she said.

Lamba has encountered similar issues with finding coverage alternatives to SHIP. The health center’s bureaucracy and lack of clarity on how to opt into a different insurance plan made the process of grappling with this year’s SHIP increases even more frustrating, Lamba said.

Being trapped in this university’s student health insurance plan signals to Lamba how vulnerable people who have to rely on SHIP are this university’s “cash cows.”

“A big part for why this happened is just the sheer ignorance at the university’s part and … this attitude where, ‘We can charge whatever we want, without any notification, without anything and we know that you have to pay it,’” Lamba said.