BYU-Idaho winter enrollment numbers

Students walk by the Manwaring Student Center during 2019 Winter semester.

Brigham Young University-Idaho’s decision to accept Medicaid as acceptable insurance to waive to student health plan came as a relief to the students who had been pushing their university to do just that.

“I’m excited, and ... I’m super grateful,” said Amanda Emerson, a senior who helped to organize her fellow students’ push back against BYU-Idaho’s decision earlier this month to no longer accept Medicaid. “A lot of other students are still upset and still want to know the truth, but I think for me, I’m just glad they made the right decision. It took a lot of pride to swallow.”

While Emerson and her husband had some money saved up and would have been able to afford a student health plan if they had to, they also are expecting another child in April. Now that the university has decided to accept Medicaid again, they can spend their money buying things for their new baby.

Emerson said that, for her and her husband, their issue with the policy was “being able to choose for ourselves our insurance options, and not being forced into a plan that really wouldn’t have worked for our family.” She said she is more grateful for what the reversal will mean for her fellow students.

“I know this is much more of a financial hardship for other students,” she said.

BYU-Idaho, like many other universities, requires students to have health insurance. Word came out earlier this month that the university, which is in Rexburg and is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would no longer accept Medicaid to waive the student health plan, meaning students on Medicaid would either have to find other insurance, buy a student health plan or drop out of school. The new policy prompted a backlash from students urging university officials to reconsider as well as getting some national media attention.

University officials initially declined to comment on the change but said last week it was due to concerns about an increase in the number of people covered by Medicaid overburdening local health care providers. Several health care providers disputed this in interviews with the Post Register and other outlets, saying they would be able to handle any influx of new patients caused by Medicaid expansion.

On Monday evening, the university announced it would reverse course and once again take Medicaid as an acceptable health plan for students to enroll.

“The well-being of our students and their families is very important to us,” the university said in a statement emailed to students and faculty. “We are grateful for the feedback we have received from our campus community and for the input of the local medical community. We apologize for the turmoil caused by our earlier decision.”

The university’s Health Center, which wasn’t a Medicaid provider before, still won’t be.

Emerson said some of her fellow students want to press for more information on why the university did what it did. Personally, though, she said she and her husband are glad they will be able to focus on Thanksgiving break, their family and their coursework and not have to worry about this anymore.

Sam Ruiz, another of the student organizers, told the Rexburg Standard Journal on Monday that he and others were filled with excitement and that many were in disbelief.

“This is amazing, this is unprecedented and shows the school still cares about the students, and we thank them for it,” he said.

Students started to push back against the new policy almost as soon as news of it made its way out, using social media to organize and express their displeasure, contacting university staff with their concerns and putting together an online petition that ended up getting more than 12,000 signatures. On Friday students held a “tabling” event on Main Street in Rexburg, passing out flyers and trying to raise public awareness of what the university had done. On Monday, just a couple of hours before the university announced it would once again accept Medicaid, students visited the university’s administrative building to voice their complaints peacefully and ask to speak with someone.

“I feel like some people look at this and think, ‘Oh, those students just hate going to school here, (then) they should just leave,’” said Mae Chapman, one of the organizers of Friday’s event. “It’s not that we hate going to school here, we love going to school here, and we love the school. We don’t love the way this decision affects our peers so heavily, and how it just kind of happened with no awareness of how this would affect people, and how many it would affect.”

Idaho voters voted in November 2018 to expand Medicaid coverage to everyone making up to 138 percent of the poverty level. Expanded coverage will kick in on Jan. 1, 2020, and the debate over BYU-Idaho’s new policy and then reversal of it played out with this in the background. Madison County has the highest percentage of its population expected to qualify for expanded Medicaid in the state, many of them students. Reclaim Idaho, the group that got Medicaid expansion on the ballot and since then has lobbied against legislative attempts to put limits on Medicaid coverage, spoke out in support of the students.

As of Tuesday 43,692 of the 91,000 people estimated to be eligible for expanded Medicaid statewide had already enrolled, according to the state Department of Health and Welfare.

Ruiz said he always knew the university would reverse course.

“I had a feeling that if there was enough pressure and they heard the student body the university would change it’s mind because the university loves the students,” he said.

Upper Valley Standard Journal Reporter Victoria Varnedoe contributed.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.