NEWS

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December 5, 2003

Skyrocketing insurance rates plague grad students

Santiago Giraldo and his wife Diana, Ph.D. students in the Anthropology department, are on the student health insurance plan, which costs them about 17 percent of their University stipend. But neither of them ever uses it because the premiums are too high.

When Diana went for a routine check up at the doctor she received a bill for $1,727. Her student health insurance paid for most of the fee, but she was still left with a bill of $430. The couple said that paying nearly $500 for what was supposed to be a routine doctor's visit was outrageous.

"It's just not worth it," Mr. Giraldo said. "It's just too expensive."

The Giraldos now wait until the end of the school year to deal with routine medical matters and get checkups. During the summer, they go home to Colombia where they say care is better and much cheaper. This yearly vacation allows them to escape the high cost of the University's student health insurance premiums, but it doesn't keep them from having to pay the overall cost of having insurance, which the University requires for every student.

The cost of University insurance has been increasing by double-digit percentages every year while covering increasingly fewer medical procedures. This trend has many students at the University, especially graduate students, worried about both their personal finances, and, though it might seem unrelated, the competitiveness of their departments.

The University stands to lose potential applicants as the cost of insurance today often determines where students choose to study. While some schools subsidize their students' health insurance, only the Biological and Physical Science departments subsidize their students' healthcare at the University of Chicago.

In some cases, attending the University may cost more than enrolling at other schools because the University does not include health insurance in most of its fellowship packages.

Healthcare costs have increased 16 to 17 percent every year nationwide while coverage has decreased. This is attributable to improved medical care over the past 20 years, which has caused more people to visit doctors.

As a result, more insurance claims are being filed, and insurance companies, in order to maintain their profit margin, are raising the cost of insurance and excluding certain forms of medical care in their coverage.

On campus, many students require several years to finish their degrees, and Ph.D. students often remain at the University for as long as seven or eight years—or longer. Many Ph.D. students have watched their insurance costs more than double over their time at the University.

Biella Coleman, also a student in the Anthropology department, is attempting to change her concern into action. Coleman is the founder of Save Our Student Health Insurance (SOSHI), an organization that believes the University administration must do what it can to lower the costs of student health care.

Coleman started a website that publishes "stories of shame" about the failures of the University's insurance plan. She is also organizing a series of events to bring more attention to this campus-wide concern.

SOSHI believes it is wrong that the Biological and Physical Science departments give their students' healthcare as a standard piece of their stipend package while the majority of students on campus have to pay for their health insurance out of pocket.

According to the group, the current University system hinders the development of a University community. Its members say the University's current financial model for health insurance impinges on its ability to attract and maintain the best Social Science, Divinity, and Humanities graduate students.

"We are losing a lot of the best candidates," Coleman said. "It's simply a bad system and it needs to be changed."

Other universities, reacting to the national healthcare problem, have reorganized their programs to help students pay for insurance. In April, Stanford created a benefit for its graduate students, reducing the rising cost of their insurance by more than half. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided over the summer that it would begin to subsidize the health insurance of all its graduate students. The University of Michigan has been including health insurance in their fellowship packages for years.

Solving the University's health insurance problems is not a simple process, administrators said.

"In the administration we worry about the problem almost every day," said Richard Saller, University Provost. According to Saller, the issue of health insurance for graduate students in different departments must be put in the broader context of fellowship support for graduate students in general.

While some universities have consistent policy standards for all graduate students, the University has followed a policy for years that allows divisions and schools to design their own fellowship programs, Saller said. Health insurance is one component of fellowship support, which is under review in the humanities and social sciences.

In regard to subsidizing student health insurance across the board, Saller said that given the large size of the University's graduate programs, the University is not in a financial position to provide health insurance to all students, much like it cannot provide full fellowships to all graduate students.

"We would like to be able to do so and have large fundraising goals in the current campaign to provide new fellowships, but have not yet attained out goals," Saller said.

The University is also beginning to look at new models for financing student healthcare, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, the director of the Student Care Center and chair of the Student Health Insurance Review Committee (SHIRC). According to Van Orman, one of the biggest problems facing the University is that, unlike at other academic institutions, the vast majority of students at the University of Chicago are pursing graduate degrees.

Unlike undergraduates, who are usually much younger—and more often draw on their parents for financial support—graduate students require more comprehensive coverage, and they usually have more dependents. Graduate students file more claims and are more expensive to insure.

Although some schools are able to finance the insurance cost for their graduate student population with the resources of a large undergraduate student body, the University is unable to use such a strategy.

"The tension is between having really basic coverage at a lower cost, or having comprehensive insurance at a higher cost," Van Orman said.