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'I'm not sure my friends can afford it': International students face hike in health insurance costs

There has been no clarity from immigration authorities about when rules will be enforced.

Image: Shutterstock/Leigh Trail

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS FROM countries outside of the European Economic Area will have to pay more than they currently pay for their mandatory private health insurance policies.

Because of a Court of Appeal decision that came into effect this week, industry estimates suggest that some students will end up paying twice of four times what they currently pay.

One student — who is currently paying €100 for mandatory private health insurance —was informed by her private college that her health insurance costs could jump from €100 to over €700 per year.

She’s concerned about affordability given the current economic situation and limitations placed on her ability to work by Irish immigration rules.

It is not clear when the immigration authorities will begin to enforce the new rules and there is some confusion between government departments about the details.

Immigration authorities

Under Irish law, all international students from outside the EEA are required by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) to have private medical insurance.

For students from non-EEA countries that require a visa to enter Ireland, they have to prove to the immigration authorities that they have this insurance before they enter the country.

Many students are covered by a relatively inexpensive policy package called ‘Medicover’, which covers accidents and illnesses that require hospitalisation.

Up until now, these policies were available to non-EEA students undertaking an academic course over more than one year.

But in April, the Court of Appeal determined that because students studying in Ireland for more than one year are ‘ordinarily resident’ in the state, they are required to purchase more expensive ‘community-rated’ policies.

The judgment related to a High Court action taken by Chubb —a Zurich-registered insurance company, which offered Medicover policies to students — against the Irish HIA.

In court, Chubb unsuccessfully challenged a 2016 HIA enforcement order, directing it to restrict the availability of the policy to non-EEA students “attending a course of study of not more than one academic year”.

Chubb then appealed the High Court ruling to the Court of Appeal where Judge Brian Murray delivered judgment in April.

Upholding most of the original ruling, Judge Murray found that “non-EEA students undertaking an academic course of more than one year’s duration are ordinarily resident in the State”.

“In so concluding, he said, “I am not out-ruling the possibility that students attending shorter courses are also so resident.”

This means that insurance policies sold to non-EEA students must comply with the rules and obligations set down in the Health Insurance Act 1994.

According to the judgment, those rules are “defined by four principles and requirements – community rating, open enrolment, lifetime cover and minimum benefit.”

A spokesperson for the HIA explained, “‘Ordinarily resident’ is not defined in the Health Insurance Acts but the Authority made its interpretation known to the industry which then became the subject of a legal challenge.

“On 8 April 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that Non-European Economic Area students undertaking an academic course of more than one year’s duration are ordinarily resident in the State and that the Authority was permitted to interpret the meaning of ‘ordinarily resident in the State’ as such.

“The judgement was perfected on 11 September 2020 and came into effect on 2 October assuming no further appeals in the interim.”

Rent, bills, visa costs

One Dublin-based student, who did not wish to be named, received an email from her college on 25 September, informing her of the changes.

The student — a Brazilian national who currently pays €100 per year for her mandatory health insurance policy — was told that her college had “just been notified that due to a recent Irish legal ruling, from 2 October 2020 international students who are ordinarily resident in Ireland for over 1 year will have to purchase a community-rated health insurance policy.”

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The email told students that community-rated health insurance premiums will cost in excess of €700 for the year.

“We do not know as yet when Irish Immigration Authorities will require international students to avail of a community-rated policy,” the message continued.

Neither the INIS, the Department of Higher Education or the HIA could provide any clarity on how or when the rules will be enforced.

When asked, a spokesperson for the HIA  said, “The implications of this ruling and how it impacts non-EEA students studying in Ireland is the responsibility of INIS who prescribe the visa requirements.”

But in response to questions from TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for INIS said that the matter is being dealt with by the departments of health and higher education, which set the criteria for immigration permissions.

A Department of Higher Education spokesperson said that “matters of enforcement of visa rules are for the relevant immigration authorities.” 

INIS has again been asked to clarify the situation.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie the student, who is only permitted to work 20 hours per week under current Irish immigration rules, said she was “very surprised” by the new rules.

“I am not sure if most of my friends can afford that right now, after losing their jobs due to Covid. It is tough only being allowed to work 20 hours a week: rent, bills, visa and college costs. A lot of people would struggle.” 

The Higher Education spokesperson said that the department is aware of the recent decision and that it has “engaged extensively” with the sector to “examine possible solutions to this issue.”

The spokesperson said that department “understands that the higher education representative bodies” have contacted insurance providers “to source policy quotes that are affordable, that meet the needs of international students and that comply with the Health Insurance Acts.

“The preference would be to arrive at an outcome where the insurance market operates to provide the necessary cover at an acceptable price.” 

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