New National Bill Protects Sick College Students from Losing Health Insurance

A bill ensuring continued health care coverage for students who take leaves of absence for medical reasons went into effect last week, one year after President George W. Bush signed it into law.

HR 2851 – also known as Michelle’s law – allows students to take up to a year of leave from college while retaining coverage under their parent’s health insurance.

The bill was named after Michelle Morse, a former student at Plymouth University in New Hampshire. In 2004, Morse was diagnosed with colon cancer and was advised by doctors to stay home and rest while undergoing chemotherapy. Morse’s insurer informed her that she would no longer be eligable for coverage if she failed to remain a full-time student. However, when she took a leave of absence from school to focus on the treatment, Morse could no longer be covered by her parents’ health insurance.

Morse underwent chemotherapy while taking a full load of classes, eventually graduating with honors. She passed away six months later.

“As policies renew, Michelle’s Law now takes place,” her mother Anne Marie Morse said. “It’s a preemptive law — all states must adopt the law as a minimum. Some states, such as New Mexico and New Hampshire, expanded that.”

State Senator George Runner authored California’s version of the law, which applies to graduate students as well as undergraduates.

“[Sen. Runner] took an interest in it to prevent an unfair situation regarding insurance coverage,” Runner’s Communications Director Jana Saastad said. “He wanted to help students continue recieving insurance while going through catastrophic medical situations.

By staying in school, Morse and other students in similar situations lack the time necessary to focus on vital treatment and recovery.

“It’s a Catch-22,” UCSD Insurance Coordinator Jessica Morris said. “You’re too sick to come to school, but you have to be a full-time student to stay on your parent’s insurance.”

After Morse’s death, her mother began a letter-writing campaign in an effort to change the law.

“I called the insurance company, spoke to an employee and found out the information was correct,” Anne Marie Morse said. “The employee said to me, ‘Okay, Mrs. Morse, you can change the law, and that’ll take a long time.’ I said, ‘Okay, I have the time.’ And I got started.”

Anne Marie Morse wrote to several New Hamshire’s political officials, including the former governor and members of the state’s legislature, and presidential candidates. Eventually, members of the state legislature reached out to Anne Marie Morse, agreeing that the current policy was unfair.

The bill was passed by the New Hampshire Legislature, and was signed into law in June 2006.

While working towards a New Hampshire law, Anne Marie Morse discovered that Michelle’s Law also fell under federal jurisdiction, starting the push for a national version.

“I ended up going down to Washington D.C.,” Anne Marie Morse said. “I had face-to-face meetings with my Washington delegation. When I left that evening, I knew I had full support, and that they would help sponsor a bill.”

Readers can contact Ayelet Bitton at [email protected].

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