Grad students bemoan healthcare premiums

By Meredith Meyer

There is a steady grumble among University graduate students, who are sick of poor health insurance. These students have witnessed a 46 percent increase in their Student Accident and Sickness Insurance (SASI) premiums since 2001. Galvanized in response to this hike, which outstrips recent inflation, more than 1,100 graduate students signed a petition demanding that the University address the current insurance offerings.

The student group Save Our Student Health Insurance (SOSHI) said the University has fallen behind peer institutions in its health care offerings. SOSHI noted that in 2004 the University was the odd-school-out in offered coverage. The group is urging the University to join the ranks of Berkeley, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, all of whom offer health insurance to all Ph.D.’s or all funded Ph.D.’s.

SOSHI claimed that health care offerings are improperly disclosed to incoming graduate students, so that entering students are surprised with high costs and poor coverage. These put “financial, emotional and medical burdens on students that make it harder to finish their programs quickly,” said Lily Chumley of the SOSHI steering committee.

“Students who have medical problems, even normal accidents, are at risk of incurring heavy debts,” Chumley said. “Many students avoid care or fail to get the medicine they need because it is too expensive—even if they don’t pay their own premiums.”

University administrators said they recognize the hardship that rising costs presents to graduate students and are working to alleviate these problems. “The [Student Health Insurance Review] Committee, composed of students, administrators, deans of students, and physicians, tries to balance the needs of students for high-quality comprehensive health care with financial constraints,” said Martina Munsters, deputy dean of students in the University for Student Affairs.

Munsters pointed to a change made last year, which rid the insurance plan of a $5,000 cap on day surgery, as evidence of the University’s efforts to reform the plan. “In time, the committee learned through students that this cap posed a financial hardship [for the students],” Munsters said.

The University is also trying to improve the existing plans. “The committee continues to look at which services can be provided cost effectively through the Student Care Center, thereby reducing the students’ need for using their insurance plan for those services,” Munsters said.

In the long term, such a strategy could reduce overall insurance costs. A consequence of this strategy could be the addition of gynecological care and physical therapy to the plan. Both services are provided by the Student Care Center (SCC).

SOSHI estimated that if effective changes are not made, graduate students could pay up to $1,375 for their insurance by the 2009-2010 academic year.

These costs are much higher than at other schools, many of which offer health insurance as part of a funding package, according to SOSHI. Chumley attributed Chicago’s higher costs in part to the demographics of its students. “Most of the students on the [University] plans are in their 20s and 30s, an expensive time for insurance when many people have children,” Chumley said.

In 2002 Stanford University began a program to subsidize more than half of the graduate-student health insurance, according to the Stanford Daily. This effort, which cost Stanford $3 million, decreased the quarterly fee graduate students had to pay to $180. Stanford University administrators said their effort represented a commitment to the school’s graduate student population, who often are precariously situated between staff and student status, and who deserve affordable health care.

Munsters warned that there are too many variables involved to accurately compare insurance plans offered by peer institutions. Munsters cited the difference of services provided by the student health services, the demographics of the student body, enrollment procedures, and the cost of medical services provided by the main hospitals where students seek care as variables prohibiting level comparison between schools.