Penn State

Penn State graduate students lament spike in health insurance

Accidents — such as a sprained ankle — happen.

But waiting two days to seek medical help because you’re afraid you can’t afford the emergency room bill shouldn’t happen.

That’s the view of Enica Castañeda, a graduate student in communications and the Penn State Faculty Senate representative of the Graduate and Professional Student Association.

Sitting in a Penn State library café, she expressed her concerns with the new, more expensive university health insurance plan for graduate students that went into effect Aug. 10.

“It’s those kinds of decisions that students shouldn’t have to make,” she said about the sprained-ankle example.

She is concerned about coverage for her son. She said she can’t afford to put him on her university plan, and her ex-husband can’t put him on his plan because he lives in California and his plan would not cover the child in Pennsylvania.

Graduate students at Penn State are paying more for health insurance despite their efforts to change the contract over the spring and summer. Prices went up across the board for the university and those on the plan, which is provided by Aetna.

On average, premiums for individual and family university plans have increased by 20 percent since last year. The individual deductible increased by $175 — to $250 — and the family deductible increased by $275 — to $500.

Graduate students started protesting in the spring, when they were informed of the changes and before the contract was signed.

They created Healthcare Unites Graduate Students to “come together to tell Penn State that we are an indispensable segment of the Penn State community,” according to the HUGS website. “We should not be pushed towards bankruptcy because of high health care costs.”

The group organized a rally on Allen Street and on the Old Main lawn on April 2, passing out fliers and attracting students, faculty and representatives from Teamsters Local 8, which represents 2,500 unionized Penn State employees. Dozens of graduate students, faculty and passers-by attended.

About 6,100 graduate students were enrolled at University Park in the fall of 2013, and about 60 percent have some type of assistantship appointment with a stipend, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email.

Penn State picks up most of the cost of their health insurance — $2,270 of $2,838 for an individual and child, and $10,861 of $14,142 for a family.

The students pay the rest on stipends that average about $17,000 a year, according to the HUGS website. Graduate students with stipends are not allowed to hold other jobs.

The graduate students’ recent activism has gained them a voice in future contract changes.

“Penn State has asked Aetna to provide several plan design options,” Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said in an email. “These options will be presented to the Student Insurance Advisory Board and the Student Insurance Administrative Council. Members of these groups will solicit feedback from their constituencies and will be involved in the final decision about the FY16 plan.”

The Student Insurance Advisory board, which includes representation from student governing groups, is to meet Friday.

The Student Health Insurance Advisory Council of the Graduate and Professional Student Association is working on better communication about insurance between the student body and the association.

Nathaniel Porter, a doctoral student in sociology, was at the HUGS rally in April with his wife and two small children. His children are covered through the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program; he and his wife are on the university plan.

“(The Student Health Insurance Advisory Council) wants to make sure that we’re engaged in the conversation as early as possible,” Porter said.

In addition, an emergency fund of up to $1,000 is available to any full-time student experiencing financial hardship who has exhausted all other options and who has met with one of the designated university officials to discuss their circumstances.

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