The University of Chicago must address healthcare funding

By Andrew Dilts

As students we get the amazing opportunity to think, to write, to study, to argue, and to live what has been called the “life of the mind.” Some of us pay dearly to be here, some of us are paid handsomely to be here, some of us are the partners and children of students here. But no matter how we find ourselves here, a fundamental right to be healthy binds us together as a university community. While healthcare fights to take top billing in the ongoing presidential race, the issue has never been more vital and more pressing here at the University of Chicago.

In the first week of March, the Student Health Insurance Review Committee (SHIRC) presented their recommendation of health insurance providers to the campus community at a series of town hall meetings. The discussions were informative, occasionally tense, and illustrative of just how important health insurance provision and funding is for everyone at the university. This point was made especially clear by members of Save Our Student Health Insurance (SOSHI), a student group dedicated to health care issues, but also by virtually every other student present as well.

The University requires all students to carry health insurance coverage. To this end, they provide an option for us to buy into a group plan. For many, especially international students, the families of students, and persons with pre-existing conditions, this is the only insurance available to us. It is literally a lifeline. This plan, however, is not only rather expensive (easily a quarter or third of a graduate student’s annual income), but has been bordering on laughable in terms of coverage over recent years.

Following the dismantling of a self-insured system administered and funded by the University in the face of dramatically rising costs, the University has gone about finding an outside insurance provider to meet the student population’s needs of health insurance. This is no easy task, and SHIRC has taken on the impossible and thankless task of selecting a provider and a plan that provides necessary coverage at an affordable price. That committee is constrained, however, not only by the nationwide increases in health care costs, but by an administrative constraint placed on their mission: they cannot directly address questions of how students are expected to pay for the very coverage they are required to carry.

The University’s decentralized bureaucracy has made it de facto policy to split questions of provision and funding. The excellent presentations this past week at the town hall meetings tried to concern themselves solely with the provision of health insurance. The recommendation detailed the insurance company being recommended to the University as its provider and the benefits that may or may not be included in that plan to determine a final premium price. These are deeply important issues, yes, but for those of us who live on fixed incomes determined largely by the University, for those of us who pay dearly in tuition fees already, and for those of us who rely on their partner’s student status to get coverage, concerns about provision and benefits cannot be separated from the question of how we are to pay for that coverage. It should not be surprising that the question which came up again and again during these town hall meetings was, “How are we supposed to pay for this?”

The University, the College, our divisions, and our departments need to hear from us that we can’t talk about health insurance without talking about funding. Questions about specific kinds of coverage are important, but when the price of basic health insurance puts many of us below the poverty line ($9,573 for a single childless person, according to the 2003 U.S. Census figures), then it should not be surprising that we are concerned less with the differences between basic and comprehensive plans, between the pros and cons of out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles, or out-patient surgery allotments, but with the simple price tag. Until the University addresses basic questions of funding, questions of provision pale in comparison.

The degree to which we think of ourselves as a community of colleagues, scholars, and friends is a defining characteristic of what makes this university so amazing. If we let ourselves be atomistic agents, then we undermine not only our own ability to function as a group, but we undermine the very closeness and solidarity that makes this university so exceptional.

No matter what your own funding status is, no matter what insurance policy you carry, fighting for affordable health care is deeply important to each of us, to our departmental communities, and to the University as a whole. We are all lucky enough to live the “life of the mind” or something close to it. The most basic prerequisite for that life, however, is our health, not only individually, but collectively. We owe it to ourselves and to our community to ensure that each of us has adequate and affordable health care. The University administration owes us some real options for how to get there.