College Students Can Take Medical Leave, Keep Insurance

This story was written by Whitney Bossie, The Pendulum
Michelle Morse had to choose between her health and her education. On Oct. 9, President Geroge W. Bush signed off on Michelles Law so that other college students would never have to make that choice.

Michelle was diagnosed with colon cancer while she was a full-time student at Plymouth State University. When it became apparent that chemotherapy was necessary, her doctors told her to cut back her course load. If she followed this advice, she would lose her status as a full-time student and consequently her coverage under her familys health insurance plan.

Without insurance, the Morse family couldnt afford treatment. They would have to pay almost $1,100 more each month to keep Michelle's insurance because the policy required adult children to attend college full-time to receive coverage.

No one should have to go through what Michelle Morse did during her battle with cancer, said Trista Hargrove of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Michelle and her mother AnnMarie believed the same thing. They thought students should be allowed a brief medical leave, during which they could cut back on courses or leave college to concentrate on health issues, without jeopardizing their health insurance coverage.

They took the issue to the New Hampshire state legislature and in June 2006, Gov. John Lynch signed Michelles Law. Similar laws were then passed in Colorado, Utah, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maine, Vermont, New York and Wisconsin.

The law allows full-time college students to take up to 12 months medical leave without risk of losing their health insurance. It applies to all students who are dependents covered under their parents health insurance and requires students to provide written documentation from a medical professional explaining the need for the temporary leave. It doesnt require insurance companies to cover any new procedures or individuals it just prevents the companies from dropping coverage for a specific class of recipients.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in July of this year, followed by the Senates passage of the bill in September. It received unanimous support. The bill then made its way to Bush, who signed it into law.

The new law will be a great relief to full-time college students facing a serious medical condition such as cancer, as well as their families, Hargrove said. It will enable them to focus on treatment without worrying about being dropped from their parents insurance plan.

According to Hargrove, Michelles Law has the full support of Americas Health Insurance Plans, which is a national association representing nearly 1,300 member companies that provide health insurance coverage to more than 200 million Americans.

Many organizations offered support for the bill prior to its passage. Colleges Against Cancer, the National Education Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society have all pledged their support.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network is thrilled about Michelle's Law becoming a reality, Hargrove said.

She noted that an estimated 2,400 college students will be diagnosed with cancer this year, in addition to the students who will be diagnosed with other serious medical conditions.

Michelle had to retain her course load during her treatment in order to prevent bankrupting her family. She planned to become an elementary school teacher and, as part of her degree requirement, completed five months of student-teaching at Bakersville Elementary School in Manchester, N.H. While working there, she wore a chemotherapy pump attached to her hip.

Michelle graduated cum laude from Pymouth State University in May 2005. In November 2005, after a 23-month battle with cancer, she passed away just days before New Hampshire state legislators passed her namesake law.

AnnMarie continued to lobby legislators to get the bill passed into federal law.While Michelle was unable to benefit from the new law, countless other college students will.

Michelle's Law will be a help to all full-time college students facing a serious medical condition," Hargrove said.