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Students enrolled in University of Nebraska health insurance plans will still pay $40 more in monthly premiums next year, an increase of more than 18% from this year's coverage costs.

A more dramatic increase to the vendor plan from United Healthcare Student Resources — a 234% increase to the out-of-pocket maximum before insurance would fully cover medical costs — will not go into effect this year, however.

In an email to students on Thursday, NU President Hank Bounds said the university system identified a "one-time solution that will allow us to keep our students' out-of-pocket limits unchanged from the current year."

Currently, the maximum out-of-pocket cost for in-network providers is $2,200 for individual plans and $4,400 for family plans. Out-of-network maximums are $4,400 for individuals and $8,800 for family plans.

The announcement from NU comes a little more than a week after students enrolled in the plan — more than 5,000 primarily graduate and international students — raised concern over the skyrocketing costs.

NU said in order to reduce a premium increase from a proposed 25% to 18.6%, it had to settle for what it described as a trade-off in the form of increases to out-of-pocket limits.

That meant students and their dependents enrolled in individual plans would have paid $7,350 out of pocket to in-network providers before insurance covered 100% of the costs. Plans covering families would have seen out-of-pocket maximums increase to $14,700 at in-network providers.

More than a dozen students and faculty advocating on students' behalf reached out to administrators at Varner Hall and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln asking the university to negotiate a new plan. The issue also picked up steam on social media over the last week.

"We have heard very clearly that the out-of-pocket changes are a significant concern for our students and faculty, no matter how small the chance of catastrophic medical hardship," Bounds wrote.

But keeping the out-of-pocket costs low comes at a cost to NU this year. Namely in the form of $180,000 culled from the university's general fund, although some private dollars from the NU Foundation could supplement the expense. The details are still being worked out, the university said.

"We're going to have to patchwork it together," said NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee. "We're going to find a way to make it work for a year."

The plan was submitted to the Nebraska Department of Insurance earlier this week for approval. Enrollment would still begin July 1 for the plans that would go into effect in August.

In his letter, Bounds cautioned students that using university funds to cover the increased out-of-pocket costs was "a one-time solution."

"Health care costs continue to escalate, and I'm not optimistic that we will be able to prevent significant price increases in the future," he wrote.

"However, we have already begun our planning for next year, and we will include students and faculty in the process to help us get to the best possible outcome."

Shawn Ratcliff, the president of UNL's Graduate Student Assembly, said he appreciated the administration's willingness to find a compromise solution in the short-term while expressing a desire for future collaboration on an insurance policy "that better meets the needs of those who use it."

Affordable and comprehensive benefits are an effective strategy for recruiting and retaining graduate students who teach and conduct research across the university system, Ratcliff said.

"I think (NU leaders) realized this was something we all, faculty and students, saw as unacceptable," Ratcliff said. "They listened to us, that's the big thing."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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