[jon]At the start of a semester most students are worried about their classes, classmates, professors and wardrobe decisions. I was worried about my genitalia.
The morning of my first class this fall, I awoke to find my penis red, inflamed and itchy. Instead of fantasizing about intellectually stimulating conversations with could-be-supermodel female classmates, I was plagued by thoughts of prescription salves, shrieking girls and lonely nights. I lack both health insurance and money, so the possibility of expensive medical bills was equally frightening. Needless to say, I was scared and didn’t know what to do. And I know I\’m not alone – there is an alarming number of uninsured college students nationwide. According to data collected in the 2005 U.S. Census, 46.6 million citizens are uninsured, and of those, 8.5 million are between the ages of 18 and 24. Health insurance provider AETNA claims on their website that more than 10 percent of the uninsured population is made up of college students.
So for three days I pretended nothing was wrong. I applied Gold Bond anti-itch cream, went to class and did my best to ignore my lower half. By the end of the week the inflammation and itchiness had spread to the rest of my body – a development I actually found pleasing. Ruling out an STD, I self-diagnosed myself with hives, drove home and finally sought medical care at my mother’s request.
[jolly well]I returned to East Lansing on Monday – medicated, healing and relieved. My skin had cleared up but the experience remained opaque. I wondered what I could – and should – have done differently. My mother and the doctor who treated me had chided me for avoiding medical care and insisted I seek care immediately should a similar situation develop in the future. Without health insurance, I had felt that my options were limited. But are they? I decided to investigate affordable health and dental services available to the uninsured student on or near the MSU campus.
Like any good college student, I began my investigation online. Fascinated with a story I had heard about a man trading his way from nothing to a house, I decided to try my hand at bartering. So I logged onto allmsu.com where I placed an ad that read, “I’ve got a wisdom tooth coming in and I don’t have health insurance. I’m looking for a medical student who will remove the tooth for free or trade (I’ve got a lot of cool stuff).” The ad received little play. The two responses I received both expressed a healthy amount of concern and skepticism, and both discouraged me from a risky amateur procedure. One of the responders recommend Lansing Community College’s dental clinic instead, where she said her roommate had received treatment for a similar problem.
The recommendation proved fruitful: the clinic offers basic services at affordable prices. An individual can receive dental hygiene care for $30 to $40. According to their website, the significant reduction in costs is realized because the clinic is operated primarily as a practice facility for students in LCC’s dental hygiene program. Because of this, the services are limited to basic procedures. Dental surgeries, such as wisdom tooth extraction, are not offered. The clinic, located in LCC’s arts and sciences building at 515 N. Washington Square, offers free screenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the school year.
Should students find themselves with serious dental problems, Olin Health Center’s dental clinic is a viable option. According to Olin’s Communications and Planning Coordinator Kathi Braunlich, the dental clinic’s rates are comparable to those available in the community. Nonetheless, the convenient location makes it the leading option for emergency dental care.
[olin]But it is Olin’s primary care health services that provide the most benefit to uninsured students. Braunlich confirmed that each year the first three medical office visits of an enrolled student are subsidized by the university and are essentially free. “For a respiratory infection in winter, very common, a student would likely just pay for a prescription since the office visit is covered,” Braunlich explained via email. The cost of extra services such as lab tests and X-rays would also be the responsibility of the student. After these three visits, the clinic operates on a fee-for-service basis. If I had known of the three free visits available to me, I doubtless would have spent one – and would have avoided a great deal of anxiety in the process.
But what to do after those three free visits? There are various other pay-for-service clinics around East Lansing. Classmate and fellow uninsured journalism graduate student Sarah Crespi visited one such clinic, Redi-Care, at 1623 Haslett Rd. in Haslett. She had a mole on her hand removed and tested. She indicated that the visit and removal surgery were affordable, but the lab test on the removed tissue was “quite expensive.” According to Redi-Care, the rate for a first-time primary-care visit by an uninsured patient is $135, while returning patients pay only $84.
Broadcast journalism graduate student Wes Holling does not have health insurance, either. It is a common mistake to assume all college-age students can simply choose to remain on their parents’ policies. Holling’s father is self-employed as a realtor and is responsible for the costs of his own health coverage. Insuring Wes was too expensive, so he grew up without health insurance. Because of this he has never had access to some of the basic health services most people take for granted, such as regular check ups or physicals. However, like me, Wes has flirted with the idea of signing up for a university-based health plan.
Michigan State offers two such plans. The most affordable is the Student Health Subsidy Program, which costs nothing. The SHSP is not insurance. It was designed for low-income students and families without access to health insurance. To qualify for the program, a student or family must have an income of less than 250 percent of the poverty rate. For an individual student like Holling, he must have made less than $24,500 last year to qualify for the program. Once enrolled, a student is afforded unlimited office visits at Olin – and only Olin. The program also covers lab tests, x-rays, and 50 percent of dental costs up to $250. Prescriptions, which also must be filled at Olin, require a $5 to $10 co-pay. But the program, established in 2001, is in peril, according to Braunlich. “Unfortunately, the program is likely going to end after this year due to lack of funding,” said MSU human resource analyst Corie Snellenberger, who was even less optimistic, cautiously indicating that the program may only last a few more months.
If the program is discontinued, other options do exist such as Ingham County’s similar subsidized health plan, which currently serves approximately 15,000 people. I talked to Ingham County’s Access to Health coordinator Boak Bloss, who described the plan for me and encouraged students to investigate it further. An individual making less than $24,000 is eligible to sign up for the plan, after which they’ll enjoy primary care and prescription services with only minimal co-pays. Students who qualify for the MSU subsidized program are not eligible for the Ingham County Health Plan, but if the former is discontinued, the latter becomes a viable option.
For students whose income disqualifies them from the subsidized programs, the university offers students an insurance plan through The Chickering Group. Year round coverage would cost somewhere around $1,300. Coverage is also available by semester or quarter. Braunlich praised the plan, saying it “is a good plan that offers protection year round and throughout the world – not just on campus. It is a much better deal than is available at many other campuses.”
When I woke up the first week of school with an inflamed penis, I felt that my options were limited. I either had to live in denial or spend money that I didn’t have at an ER. But thanks to the immediacy of an office visit and the future security offered by university-based health plans, there are options available to cure the uninsured student – and future unpleasant mornings like mine.

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