A new look at University health insurance

By Biella Colem

The Maroon ran a news story on Friday, December 5, 2003 entitled “Skyrocketing insurance rates plague graduate students.” The article was a fair examination of the problems both students and administrators face with respect to the rising cost of the student health insurance plan at the University of Chicago.

However, the Maroon also ran an editorial which the Save Our Student Health Insurance (SOSHI) group feels misrepresents the efforts graduate students have and are currently undertaking to make health insurance more affordable for all graduate students, not just a select group studying the biological and physical sciences.

For example, the Maroon portrays graduate students who are a part of the SOSHI organization as screaming and angry people who have never talked to administrators nor attempted any “analysis” of this issue.

The Maroon is wrong on both counts.

Various members of SOSHI have spent considerable time talking with members of the University Student Health Insurance Review Committee (SHIRC) and University administrators at various levels. The Maroon is correct to point out that the University has not been totally unresponsive to our efforts to bring a more affordable and comprehensive health insurance plan to all graduate students at the U of C. However, the Maroon fails to mention that in our conversations the University has given us little of substance to work with: various administrators acknowledge that the rising cost of health insurance is a problem, claim there is no money, and send us off to our divisional deans for solutions. Our divisional deans usually acknowledge the problem, claim there is no money, say health insurance is not their responsibility, and send us off to the University administration. Graduate students are neither screaming nor misinformed. We are, however, tired of riding this bureaucratic merry-go-round. We seek to resolve this issue in a manner that is fair to all graduate students. We are willing to further talk with administrators if they are willing to hold serious discussions about: 1) what short- and long-term efforts the University can make to change the current health insurance system, a system which the University itself recognizes is not financially sustainable in the long-term; and 2) how the University can help all graduate students pay for it.

The Maroon correctly notes that a University health insurance committee—the SHIRC—does in fact exist. However, the Maroon fails to mention that the only reason the University decided to create SHIRC was because of the pressure placed on it by a now defunct student group (SSHI, or Save Student Health Insurance) via a publicity campaign in 1999. The Maroon also implies that SHIRC looks “at more efficient ways of financing student health insurance.” This is incorrect. Although members of SHIRC readily acknowledge the grave financial troubles many students face in trying to pay for insurance, SHIRC has no authority to do anything about how students are expected to pay for it. SHIRC’s mandate is to find the best health insurance plan on the open market. They try to find a balance between benefits and costs, working within a pre-determined set of constraints given to them by the University, and then every year, for a variety of reasons (mainly rising nationwide healthcare costs), are forced to raise the cost of the health insurance plan by 15-20 percent. Given that graduate student aid for most students is not rising in similar annual increments, the financial pressures graduate students are facing, especially those students in traditionally under-funded areas such as Divinity, Philosophy, Classics, Anthropology, Sociology, and Cinema Studies to name a few, are reaching crisis levels.

The Maroon also stated that the majority of current criticism of the University’s policy towards how graduate students pay for health insurance “revolves around the fact that other universities are able to subsidize their students’ healthcare.” Once again, the Maroon is wrong. SOSHI’s main argument stems from what we perceive to be a direct contradiction between the mission statement of the University and the actions it is taking. This university claims its mission is to “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” This is an admirable and broad-based mission, for human life is enriched not only by, for example, the Physical Sciences, but also by the Human Sciences, medicine, the arts, and the Classics to name a few. To enrich human life, the University must therefore advance knowledge in a variety of fields through its words and deeds. Yet, for the past few years the University has been paying for the entire health insurance costs of only Biological and Physical Sciences graduate students while ignoring, or merely paying lip-service to, the financial realities students in traditionally under-funded areas are facing. For an institution which claims its mission is to let knowledge grow so as to enrich human life, an institution which has a long and storied tradition of excellence in areas such as Divinity and the Humanities, we ask this: where is your financial commitment to students in the Arts, the Humanities, and Social Sciences? Does the University of Chicago truly value all types of knowledge so as to enrich human life, or simply those which can afford to fund themselves?

Finally, the Maroon also incorrectly implies that current graduate students propose providing for health insurance subsidies by bringing more undergraduate students to the University. This is false: this option has neither been proffered for consideration nor supported by current graduate students involved with the SOSHI organization.

Editorial opinions are an integral part of any journalistic service. However, they become a disservice to the reading public when they convey patently false information. The editorial the Maroon ran on December 5 of last year, despite its best intentions, we feels, falls into the latter group.