College Cancels Student Health Insurance To Ban Birth Control On Campus

On July 10, Wheaton College, the Christian liberal arts school outside Chicago, announced that it would not be offering health insurance to students during the 2015-16 academic year. "I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision, and I regret that," student development vice president Paul Chelsen said last week. But, in spite of the negative repercussions this will have, the college is forging ahead in its decision — all in the name of bypassing birth control access.

Wheaton College has considered nixing student healthcare plans ever since last summer's Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed religiously affiliated organizations to opt of out providing contraception through employee health care programs on grounds of faith-based objections. The college finally took the plunge: Its student healthcare programs ended today.

Chelsen asserted that the decision to terminate healthcare plans for students (though not faculty) is in part to protect the progress of a lawsuit between the school and the Department of Health and Human Services. "If we don’t win this case," he said, "the implications down the road in terms of what the government will tell us what we can and cannot do will be potentially more significant." A request for further comment has not been returned at this time.

Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, finds Chelsen's explanation lacking. Though Wheaton has said that the school's credo does not align with providing birth control to students, it's possible for the college to allow the insurer to take on the responsibility of students' contraception, as part of an Obamacare provision.

"Really, all they have to do is fill out a form and send it to the federal government, saying they have this objection. Then, the insurance company will cover the cost of contraception," Amiri explained during a phone call with Refinery29 this afternoon. Wheaton has declined to follow that channel.

The decision to suspend student healthcare also has dangerous implications for the overall well-being of the school's nearly 3,000 students. "It puts them in a tenuous healthcare and financial situation," explained Rachel Klein, the director of organizational strategy at Families USA.

Klein also points out that, while students losing their coverage will be eligible for insurance through Illinois' marketplace exchange, it's important that they be coached on how to sign up — and that they do so within 60 days of their current plan's cancellation date. Going without coverage for more than three months in a calendar year comes with a tax penalty and potentially serious health repercussions. "Lots of times," Klein adds, "people without coverage are forced to stop seeking treatment for everything from asthma to birth control. These are lifestyle issues and have very serious potential health consequences."

Rebecca Lundberg Witt graduated from Wheaton in 2006. While she thinks fondly of the years she spent there, she says that she will not donate to the college if this new policy remains in place. "I enjoyed my time at Wheaton immensely. I loved my professors — who are, as a whole, much more progressive than the administration — and I made lifelong friendships," she shared via email. "It's a wonderful school that deserves its high academic rankings. But, this position that the school is taking is illogical and harmful to the school's reputation." And it's harmful to the school's students as well.

Ed note: An early version of this article failed to make clear that there are two Wheaton Colleges, one in Illinois, which cancelled its insurance policy, and one in Norton, MA, which hasn't. Sorry for any confusion.


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