Penn State graduate student Tanner Cooke has had enough healthcare entanglements this year. He recently discovered he had a congenital heart defect. He saw a cardiologist in Hershey, underwent batteries of tests and must receive yearly checkups.
Cooke’s one saving grace: nearly all of it was covered by his health insurance.
But when a proposed new graduate healthcare plan takes effect in August, Cooke is one of thousands of graduate students who could see hundreds or thousands of dollars per year in increased costs.
“People don’t like when I say this, but it’s a complex issue – from the ACA and utilization to actuarial value. It’s good for everyone to keep in mind that [the university has] an interest in keeping the best faculty and graduate students here. It’s a complicated issue.”
Scott Rager, President, Graduate Student Association
The details of the new plan and its potential impact on graduate students haven’t been fully released, according to Graduate Student Association President Scott Rager.
But under the current thinking, monthly health insurance premiums and deductibles will increase, while in-network coverage will decrease. Most notably for graduate students like Cooke, the new plan now covers 90 percent of in-network costs, instead of 100 percent. Children and spouses on a graduate student’s insurance are covered at an even lower rate.
And while some graduate students are upset about the new plan, Rager says there will be “no helpful changes from the insurance plan,” and that any adjustments will have to be subsidized by the university.
Cooke’s appointments have so far been free, but the regular examinations he’ll need will cost him more than $1,500 per year under the new plan, a substantial portion of the median graduate student salary of about $17,000.
“I already can’t afford to have [my wife] on my insurance,” Cooke said, and the new plan is “making an already difficult or undoable situation even more unattainable.”
And it’s not just the premium payments that worry him.
“The $30 per month increase isn’t the big issue. It’s that we’re gonna pay $30 more a month, but then also have less coverage,” he said.
Rager says the university was between a rock and a hard place, and that healthcare is a complex issue with no simple answers.
The university was faced with increased utilization, plus new restrictions from the Affordable Care Act stating that plans may have an actuarial value of no more than 92 percent. That is, a graduate student should pay about 8 percent of their healthcare costs.
Given those restriction, there were few plans that the university could pick from, said Rager.
“The university had a choice between the current options and a lower deductible but a much higher out of network cost.”
Faced with the possibility that graduate students could incur crippling out-of-network emergency charges, Rager said the GSA preferred the current plan.
“People don’t like when I say this, but it’s a complex issue – from the ACA and utilization to actuarial value. It’s good for everyone to keep in mind that [the university has] an interest in keeping the best faculty and graduate students here. It’s a complicated issue,” said Rager.
“I want people to know that it’s not something that’s going to be solved by Thursday or Friday. It’ll be a minimum of weeks before there’s a solid solution,” said Rager.
But some graduate students aren’t happy with that solution. Jeffery Masko, a graduate student in the College of Communications, says he represents a group of students “organizing from within and without of the GSA.”
While he fundamentally supports the GSA in its discussions with the administration, Masko said that the healthcare issue has caused some graduate students to lose confidence in the GSA.
“We’d like to see the organization concentrate not on the details of the plan, which it should be said are still open to further investigation, but on the main concerns of graduate students.”
In an email to Voices, Masko wrote that graduate students can’t afford a solution that causes them a net loss in their funding.
“The financial position of many graduate students is already precarious, and this kind of burden would be catastrophic,” he wrote.
He’s also worried about the speed of the discussion, saying that graduate students “need more time to work this out together and craft a solution that will work for everyone.”
“To decide such a crucial decision so quickly is against everything President Erickson has called for in his change of culture,” he wrote.
Masko believes that the GSA needs to shift its focus to issues he believes to be more in line with the concerns of the general student body.
“These positions are not in general what the GSA is advocating; rather, they are focusing on the options given by the administration,” he wrote.
Masko, Cooke and Rager will all soon have the chance to address the administration directly. The GSA is hosting a public panel on Mar. 30, and upper-level Penn State administrators are scheduled to attend.
So many graduate students have signed up for the panel that the GSA was forced to move the location from 22 Deike to a larger room in the Dickinson School of Law’s Lewis Katz Building.
Cooke says he wants to find a solution that keeps grad students solvent.
“I hope that the administration is willing to listen to the graduate student community, and hear our concerns and hopefully try to work with us to find a solution that ultimately equates to us not feeling any more financial burden than we already feel,” he said.
“If people are feeling more of a financial burden, then it puts more of a burden on Centre County. You’re gonna have more graduate students applying for food stamps, heating assistance, other assistance. We’re already barely making ends meet.” ■
By SEAN FLYNN
VOICES Managing Editor