Columbia students take issue with abortion coverage


Morningside Heights, NEW YORK— Columbia University’s recent change in student insurance coverage prompted by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) upset both the CU Democrats and Columbia Right to Life (CRL) last week.

The altered university insurance coverage dropped a supplemental program funded by a mandatory fee that provided special services, including confidential abortion. The CU Dems began protesting the loss of confidential abortion coverage. Members of CRL wondered why they hadn’t been told the fee went to a pool of funds that covered, among other services, abortion.

Columbia blog Bwog broke the news Oct. 12 that the dropped program would mean no more confidential abortion coverage.  The CU Dems posted a statement on their website Oct. 13.

CRL students, meanwhile, were not aware of the abortion coverage in the first place and suspect other students were unknowingly paying for abortions as well.

“I had no idea that our Health Services Fee was covering abortions,” Julia Salazar (’13), CRL president said. After Bwog broke the news, Salazar searched for information about the fee but only found details about the Student Health Plan, a separate insurance plan the university offers.  Researching the mandatory Health Services Fee, she said she could find nothing that mentioned abortion.

CRL Vice President Tess Murray (’13) added, “People didn’t know. I certainly didn’t know.”

Harvard, a peer institution, enumerates abortion coverage under its Student Health Fee on its website.

The CU website’s section on women’s health does not indicate how it is covered.

CU Dems lead activist Zoe Ridolfi-Starr said it had been possible to learn that the fee went toward abortion services, but the layers of Columbia beaurocracy encumbered the search. “I am personally a different case, because I work in reproductive health care," Ridolfi-Starr said. "I had multiple friends ask me how to obtain abortions, so I’m familiar with previous policy.”

Although the optional Student Health Plan covers “elective termination of pregnancy," students who remain on their parents' plans would lack provision for confidential abortions without the supplemental program. Under the ACA, this program would have to be classified as a separate insurance plan in addition to the Student Health Plan that CU already offers students who don’t use their parents’ insurance.

As a result, CU would have been forced to augment the program to become a second insurance plan, increasing the mandatory Health Services Fee. Columbia opted to drop the supplemental program and reduce the fee, which the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, reported in an Oct. 17 article, including the CU Dems’ opposition to the lost abortion coverage.

Columbia Health Services responded Oct. 22 by creating a discretionary fund that covered abortion.

“The new discretionary fund is for situations in which students choose for personal reasons not to avail themselves of their external healthcare coverage," Columbia Health Assistant Vice President Samuel Seward said in a statement. "It will also provide support to students whose health insurance does not include the necessary benefits, or who are part-time students not covered by health insurance. Financial support for the new fund will not be sourced from any mandatory student health fees.”

Seward declined to comment further. No other Columbia officials could be reached for comment.

Both CRL and the CU Dems are pleased the fund is not mandatory; Salazar expressed relief that the solution accommodated those who morally oppose abortion, and Ridolfi-Starr agreed, saying she was “very glad.”

Regarding campus news coverage, however, the two groups feel differently. Salazar said much of the CU “hostility” toward CRL appears in comments on Spectator articles, which she also said have sometimes “manipulated the words” of CRL members and seem “biased.”

She described an encounter with the Spectator during the time of the abortion coverage story. Before the newspaper published its first story on the issue, a Spectator reporter emailed CRL webmaster Nathan Grubb, who forwarded the email to Salazar and Murray. Salazar responded, saying she would be “glad to do an interview,” but she wasn’t contacted again before the article ran.

Salazar was quoted, however, in the subsequent article about the new discretionary abortion fund.

Ridolfi-Starr said she “felt positive” about the CU Dems’ interaction with the campus reporters. “It was less about getting a side as opposed to getting the issue," she said. "We were the only individuals to realize that this was going to be significant. The paper seemed curious about what happened.”

While CU administration addressed this issue quickly, neither CRL nor the CU Dems have had as much success in the past.

CRL has been petitioning Columbia Health Services to provide better care for women who choose to keep their children.

“It’s been an uphill battle up all the way," Murray, who has been trying to remain in contact with Health Services, said. "I can say that general student interaction with Health Services is that they either don’t use it or don’t know what goes on there.”

Murray said that, during a recent outbreak of a strange rash in one dorm, regular treatments could not help students because of the unusual nature of the rash. Health Services took weeks to offer special services for the rash, even as it grew to an epidemic.

Ridolfi-Starr called the CU Dems’ relationship with the Columbia administration “complicated.”

“In a lot of ways, their job is to block student stuff they think might be problematic. As a political group, CU Dems has a lot of things that fall in that category,” she said.

At the end of the campaign for the abortion fund, Ridolfi-Starr is still confused about who was in charge. “It’s hard to figure out who does what and who really understands the policy,” she said. Two key administrators gave different answers about the issue, and both told Ridolfi-Starr, “The other guy probably knows better than me.”

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the Student Health Plan requires students to notify parents before obtaining abortions. The Tribune regrets the error.