Kaydee Edralin and her husband, along with many other students at Brigham Young University-Idaho were upset they would have to buy additional health insurance after the university said it would not consider Medicaid to be valid insurance. The school reversed the policy Monday. James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption

James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio

Brigham Young University-Idaho apologized and reversed a controversial policy that would have barred students from using Medicaid to meet the school’s requirement for health coverage.

This comes after nearly two weeks of student protests, complaining that the policy was unfair and would force some students to disenroll rather than buy health care plans they couldn’t afford. Thousands of people signed a petition asking the school to reverse its decision.

Low-income students like 22-year-old Kaydee Edralin said that they would have had to go into debt to buy health insurance that complied with school policy.

“I freaked out,” Edralin said. “Obviously, we don’t have a lot of money.”

Edralin is a few credits shy of graduating from the school, which is located in the small, eastern Idaho town of Rexburg. It’s the biggest university in the state and is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more widely known as the Mormon church.

Edralin just got married in October and had planned out every detail of her family’s new budget. That included signing up herself and her husband for Medicaid.

When the school announced that it wouldn’t accept Medicaid, just two months before the start of the next semester in January, it was a big deal for a lot of students, who were planning to enroll in Medicaid under the state’s newly expanded program.

Idaho lawmakers had fought Medicaid expansion at the state capitol for years. But last year, nearly 61% of voters established the program through a ballot initiative.

Previously in Idaho, Medicaid had mostly been available to just pregnant women, people with disabilities and some elderly people. Expansion means many low-income students will be able to get the nearly free health coverage. So the school saying it wouldn’t accept Medicaid was a financial blow to these students.

Brigham Young University-Idaho is the state’s largest university with more than 30,000 students. More than two-thirds of them live on campus. James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption

James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio

“Suddenly, now, I’m going to have over $1,000 extra each semester to pay for me and my husband in insurance when we’re covered by [ACA-compliant], full coverage Medicaid,” Edralin said, after the policy was put in place.

Late Monday the school reversed course. It issued a statement to students and the media saying it would allow students on Medicaid to enroll. “We apologize for the turmoil caused by our earlier decision,” the statement said.

Edralin was at home, doing laundry and checking her inbox when she saw a new email pop up with news of the reversal.

“Then I opened it and I was like, ‘No way, no way. This isn’t real,’ ” she said.

Like a lot of schools, BYU-Idaho requires full-time students to have health insurance in order to enroll. It accepts private coverage, and had said the student plan the school itself offers would also work. But many students didn’t see that as a good option. That plan adds up to more than $1,600 annually, and is skimpier coverage than Medicaid.

It also doesn’t follow federal rules for health insurance because the organization that oversees the plan isn’t classified as an insurance company. Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators was established by the Mormon church in 1970 and it doesn’t have to comply with federal requirements.

For example, the student plan has annual caps on how much it’ll pay for coverage — something the Affordable Care Act outlawed — and it doesn’t cover any kind of contraception, which the ACA mandates be offered.

Seth Bairett, a student and new father, says the school’s earlier ban on Medicaid was not cool. He was frustrated that the school hadn’t offered a good explanation for that policy.

“We weren’t given any information at all until it was absolutely necessary,” Bairett said. “Our concern is that this was done purely because someone realized they could make extra money.”

The reversal of the policy came as a huge relief to Bairett and his wife. Both are full-time students who rely on Medicaid for health care.

“It honestly feels like I can breathe again.” said MaCae Bairett, Seth’s wife.

“[It’s] $1,700 we’re basically getting back.” Seth added.

Seth and MaCae Bairett, with their 7-month-old daughter, Lyssa. They’re on Medicaid and say they would’ve had to scrape together $1,700 dollars to get extra health coverage under a BYU-Idaho policy barring those on Medicaid from enrolling. The school has since said it will accept Medicaid. James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption

James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio

BYU-Idaho is governed independently of BYU’s main campus in Provo, Utah. The Utah campus accepts Medicaid for required health coverage, and officials there referred questions about the Idaho school to leaders in Idaho. The Mormom church did the same.

Before reversing its policy on Medicaid, the school argued in an e-mailed statement to NPR that with more than 20,000 students enrolled on campus, “it would be impractical for the local medical community and infrastructure to support them with only Medicaid coverage.”

But local health care providers said that wasn’t true.

“That hasn’t been one of our topics of discussion,” said Doug McBride, a spokesperson for Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg, the city’s largest health care provider.

He said his hospital and its affiliated clinics are ready for the expected surge of Medicaid patients.

“We are perfectly capable of handling what needs we have. We’ve got the infrastructure to handle the medical needs of the community,” he said.

Twenty different clinics in Rexburg have also told the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare that they’re accepting new Medicaid patients.

When she heard about the school’s policy shift, Kaydee Edralin, the student who’s set to graduate next year, immediately called her husband to celebrate.

She had always hoped the school would change course. But Edralin says she wasn’t sure it would happen.

“I wasn’t ready to come face to face with the loans I’d have to take out, but I’m just so excited,” Edralin said.

The next call she made after hanging up with her husband? She let her insurance agent know her family wouldn’t need to shell out thousands of dollars for a new health policy next year.