medical bill roulette targeted by cheaper insurance plan
By Ashley Schiller
May 8, 2008 | "I thought you died right then."
Weeks after 20-year-old Lara Willey fell 30 feet onto
a cement slab, her date told her what he was thinking
as he watched her convulse for a few moments before
she stopped moving completely.
The two had been set up on a blind date. They went
to a recreation center with an outdoor rock wall. Just
as Willey reached the top, the pulley system was ripped
out of its holding and she crashed down to the cement
She broke her neck, four bones in her back and both
sides of her pelvis. Her left elbow was shattered and
her right shoulder torn. For a while, she couldn't use
either hand. Family members even had to help her scratch,
her mother, Cherie Willey, said.
After nine days in the hospital, she went home in
a body cast, deemed the "turtle shell," which she stayed
in for two months. It took her family about four hours
to bathe her in the beginning. By the end of the two
months, they had it down to two.
Nine months of physical therapy followed. A year after
the accident occurred, she is still recovering and doctors
say she will likely experience early arthritis.
Willey, along with many fellow Utah State University
students, doesn't have insurance.
The total medical bill: $150,000.
About one-fourth of USU students are uninsured, Noell
Hansen, a specialist in the Student Health and Wellness
Center, said. Utah law allows single students under
25 to still be on their parents' insurance. As a result,
the majority of USU uninsured students are juniors,
seniors or graduate students, she said.
But not all students' parents have insurance, and
there are also many uninsured married students, who
lost eligibility to be on their parents' policy when
For newlywed couples such as Jon Call and his wife,
both of whom were on their parents' policy before, insurance
has been a challenge they have never had to deal with
Because of his wife's slight spinal curvature, all
the insurance companies they have investigated have
rejected them. They looked into the university's insurance
but it was "blazing expensive, more than rent," Call
However, USU insurance will be less expensive next
fall. There will be a 34 percent decrease in the premium,
Hansen said, taking the average $1,780 premium for a
single student down to $1,165. Family policies will
also go down.
The decrease is a result of a recent decision that
provides that the university pays 80 percent of the
premiums for graduate assistants, teaching assistants
and graduate students with a fellowship or scholarship
of at least $10,000, Hansen said. These students will
only have to pay $242 a year for coverage.
Because so many more students will use the university's
insurance, premiums for everyone will drop, Hansen said.
Current premiums are high because so few use the university
insurance - only about 200 students per semester, and
many of these are high-risk individuals, she said.
The new regulation has "breathed life back into [USU's]
policy," Hansen said. She hopes that this will be a
great enrollment year. Higher enrollment would likely
result in either more benefits or lower premiums in
the future, she said.
High premiums often contribute to a person or family's
decision not to have insurance. Cherie Willey hasn't
had insurance since May of 1990. At the time, she had
five young children. Her husband owned his own business
as an electrical contractor and business was slow.
"We had to decide, 'Do we send off the insurance
payment or do we put food on the table?'" Willey
They concluded they would go off insurance until things
In July, Willey got a brain tumor.
"We said, ‘Let's just drop the insurance for a few
months until we can afford it again, we're healthy,'
and then BAM! That's when it all happened," Willey said.
Luckily, Medicaid paid for a lot of the treatment,
she said, adding that others in the medical field and
community were also very generous.
Since 1990, the family has never qualified for insurance,
Willey said. Her daughter grew up without insurance,
but she never had a great accident until her fall last
While her daughter was recovering, a hospital worker
suggested the parents seek the help of Medicaid to assist
their daughter pay her gigantic bills. Medicaid agreed
to pay for the first two months of hospitalization and
doctors with the understanding that when she gets a
settlement from the accident, she will pay the organization
back, Willey said.
They have not pursued legal action yet. The attorney
wanted to wait a year to see how well Lara was recovering.
She looks completely healthy and wears a big smile,
but she is in pain everyday, Willey said. If an out
of court settlement is not agreed upon, Lara will sue
the company that owns the rock wall from which she fell.
Even with the help from Medicaid, the family has paid
between $18,000 and $20,000 themselves. Willey expressed
frustration with the expense of medical procedures.
"Competition is what has made our country great. There's
not just one car dealership or one hamburger stand.
There are a lot of different choices. And it seems like
our choices are being controlled; there is not competition
in the medical field. Doctors are not lowering their
prices to get our business," she said.
Hansen said she can understand both sides of the issue.
She said she wasn't sure she and her husband could afford
to pay USU insurance for their family. Insuring a family
costs between $5,000 and $11,000 a year, she said.
Yet Hansen has also had the experience of watching
students come into her office, "put their head on my
desk and cry" because they had a medical emergency and
are unable to pay for it. She knows several students
who have had to drop out of school because of their
"You can't ever avoid becoming ill or being involved
in an accident or being diagnosed with a significant
illness, but you can avoid being financially devastated,"
College is an important time to have insurance, according
to the Web site commonwealthfund.org.
Some of the reasons include: 14 percent of young adults
are obese, there are about 3.5 million pregnancies among
young adults each year, half the HIV diagnoses are made
among young adults and injury-related emergency room
visits are far more common among young adults than for
adults or children.
Call said his wife often worries about them not having
insurance. His wife has had strep throat twice this
year. Because her husband is a student, she was able
to go to the Health and Wellness Center for only $40,
but they want insurance, he said. They are looking,
but said it‘s not easy finding an affordable company
that will accept them.
Call said he wishes it were easier to deal with, like
"Health insurance is a whole different story," he
"I think the whole system stinks," Willey said. "There
should be a better way. I don't know the answer. If
I did I would try to help our country to be able to
have it. But I think that everyone should be able to