While students from the European Economic Area are entitled to apply for access to public health services in Ireland, it is mandatory for non-EEA students to show proof of comprehensive medical insurance when applying for a student visa, and when their studies last for more than one year.
“We see these students already paying extortionate fees to study here but that’s not even the tip of the iceberg anymore”
However insurance giant Chubb, which had been providing budget private health cover for thousands of international students for a decade, recently became embroiled in a legal battle with the Health Insurance Authority after the HIA claimed it was in breach of legislation.
In March 2017, the HIA issued an enforcement notice to Chubb in relation to its ‘Medicover Student’ policy, which deemed that the product “could not be sold unless Chubb complied with Health Insurance Acts”, such as community rating, open enrolment, lifetime cover and minimum benefits.
The HIA also said that insurers selling health insurance contracts to persons “ordinarily resident in the State” were required to be registered with the HIA.
Chubb was issued with a notice that it had to stop selling the policy to non-EAA students whose courses lasted more than one year, or become registered and subject to laws that ban insurance companies from cherry-picking younger, healthy customers over older or sick people, and therefore pricing based on risk.
Chubb challenged the decision in the High Court, pointing out that the product had been on the market for more than 16 years, and that is not possible for non-EAA students to purchase Irish health insurance before their arrival as they are required to be an “ordinarily resident” in the country to do so.
However, the Irish High Court has ruled in favour of upholding the enforcement notice, determining that “ordinarily resident in the State” – in respect of non-EAA students – means attending a course of study of more than one academic year’s duration.
CEO of the HIA, Don Gallagher commented: “Registration with the HIA…ensures that all consumers pay the same premium for the same health coverage regardless of their age, gender, health or past record of claims”.
“Ultimately, this scheme tries to promote a fairer – or more equal – health system for consumers,” he added.
In response to the ruling, the Irish Council for International Students, which had previously argued that non-EAA students do not earn residency rights while on study programs and therefore should not be restricted to HIA regulated health plans, described it as a blow for international students and for Ireland’s internationalisation ambitions.
“Ultimately, this scheme tries to promote a fairer – or more equal – health system for consumers”
ICOS director Sheila Power said that while she respects the High Court’s decision, private medical insurance will become considerably more expensive, and potentially an unacceptable additional financial burden for non-EAA students who wish to study in Ireland for longer than 12 months.
“As a result of this ruling, insurance plans available to international students are expected to increase dramatically from approximately €120 in year one of their studies to many times this amount in year two and beyond, potentially adding several thousand euros to the overall cost of study in Ireland, and making Ireland less competitive as a result,” she said in a statement.
In addition, Power said that plans currently available through HIA regulated providers are deficient when it comes to the type of cover most needed by international students.
“What higher education institutions most want, and what immigration authorities demand, is reassurance that students have sufficient cover to include repatriation costs and provision for support from immediate family members in the case of death or serious illness/injury of the student.
“No policy currently satisfies the HIA regulations while also providing repatriation cover to students’ home countries, and unless there are some changes students could be faced with buying two policies, which is entirely unacceptable,” she added.
To help negate the adverse consequences for the sector, ICOS said it is calling on the Department of Education and Skills to consider the implications of the ruling and to facilitate interdepartmental discussions to explore the issues that may arise.
Vice president for Equality and Citizenship at the Union of Students in Ireland, Aisling Cusack, told The PIE News that USI supports ICOS and its call on the government to consider the implications of the ruling.
“No policy currently satisfies the HIA regulations while also providing repatriation cover”
“We see these students already paying extortionate fees to study here, but that’s not even the tip of the iceberg anymore,” she said.
“With the new luxurious student accommodation complexes popping up everywhere, these students could potentially be paying another €12,000 for their rent on top of those fees, alongside the cost of living for daily expenses and the mandatory private medical insurance.
“Studying in Ireland is a great experience for many but…[this] could mean our doors are slamming shut in the faces of many from abroad,” Cusack added.