Health insurance rules ‘putting foreign students in danger’

Senators hear that a waiting period for pregnancy coverage is endangering mothers and babies

May 26, 2023
pregnant, maternity
Source: iStock

Australian parliamentarians have told Canberra to change the rules governing international students’ health insurance after hearing that gaps in coverage are forcing pregnant women out of university and even into prostitution.

A Senate committee has recommended a change to the Overseas Student Health Cover Deed, which outlines the terms of foreign students’ mandatory health insurance, to remove a 12-month waiting period for pregnancy-related care.

The committee, which has been inquiring into sexual and reproductive healthcare, heard that more than two thirds of foreign students’ unplanned pregnancies happened during their initial year in Australia – often the consequence of their poor “health literacy”.

Young women in this situation faced a stark choice. Some submitted to “reluctant abortions”, according to the International Student Sexual Health Network (ISSHN), and some fled home to have babies, jeopardising their education.

Others battled on with their studies while trying to raise infants, facing “hefty bills” for doctors’ consultations, obstetric care, parental classes and “basic health screening” – services that are free or heavily subsidised for Australian citizens.

The compounding costs led some students to take up sex work “to pay for unplanned children”, the ISSHN said. “People have no antenatal care, which increases the risk of adverse health effects for both the mother and the baby,” ISSHN co-chair Alison Coelho told the inquiry.

She said the waiting period for reproductive health cover had been introduced in the middle of last decade because of concerns that students were getting pregnant to guarantee Australian citizenship for their children. But the effect had been to deny medical advice to the people who most needed it “because of the lack of health literacy around sexual and reproductive health”.

The Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee has now urged the federal government to abolish pregnancy care waiting periods for international students. The recommendation is one of 36 offered in a 25 May report.

However, the Council of International Students Australia (Cisa) said it was not advocating for the waiting period’s removal because the issue had never been raised by members, and because unintentionally pregnant students generally received help from universities or community organisations.

Cisa president Yeganeh Soltanpour said measures to protect students must be balanced with the need to safeguard international education’s reputation, by preventing “people who pose as students” from exploiting Australian services. “If anyone…believes strongly that this [waiting period] should be removed, we would love for them to come to us. We know…it’s something that we have to have on our radar.”

Ms Soltanpour said “misinformation” was a bigger issue, with students often confused about their entitlements: “There is some shame and…fear associated with speaking about sexual health and pregnancy.”

She said students feared that enquiries into the subject could lead to visa cancellation, because authorities would assume “we want to get pregnant, even though it’s just the desire to be informed”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles