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AUSTIN, Texas – The University of Texas at Austin announced health insurance changes for graduate student academic employees starting on September 1, 2021. Graduate student academic employees will go from being covered by UT Select to AcademicBlue.
This switch comes after the Graduate School did research, seeing that one of the biggest issues graduate students face is continuous, affordable healthcare. During the summer months, graduate students not employed by the university lose insurance coverage and benefits. With this switch, the university will also save money.
The UT Graduate School says it expects the majority of students will experience lower out-of-pocket costs under AcademicBlue. In addition to ensuring access and continuity of coverage, students switching to AcademicBlue will receive free dental and vision coverage.
AcademicBlue has been the health plan for graduate students who are not academic employees, and it is the health plan available to undergraduate students at the university. Officials say many students have had positive experiences using AcademicBlue for health insurance.
In an email sent to FOX 7 Austin from UT Graduate School, Mark J. Smith, the Dean of the Graduate School and Sr. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs said in a statement:
“While there will always be tradeoffs in selecting one health care plan over another, our goal was to select the plan that offered the greatest value to the greatest number of graduate students. We worked with graduate students in making that determination and believe this choice is to the benefit of our students.”
Following an email on April 2, the Graduate School announced they would be holding two information sessions to explain the details of the AcademicBlue health plan and answer questions from students. Many students were highly concerned, as the AcademicBlue plan seemed to incur more costs for them compared to the UT Select plan.
Through the information sessions, the UT Austin Graduate School staff highlighted some key differences between the two health insurance plans.
Starting in September, graduate students who are part-time academic employees under UT Select will have a 50% premium share, paying $314.02 a month. Under AcademicBlue, 100% premium sharing is available. Staff members shared with these students that the 50% premium is what part-time faculty members are faced with.
One staff member stated that in regard to the premium change, “Students were given special treatment and students continue to receive special treatment compared to faculty and staff.”
The graduate students in the session felt that statement to be problematic. “We’re treated like staff when it’s convenient to be treated like staff, then a lot of times we’re treated like students when it’s convenient to be treated like students,” one student shares.
The student adds, “We don’t get paid a lot. We’re here seeking an education and I know it’s our choice to be here, but we’re backed into corners a lot and it feels like a pay cut when we’re being forced to opt-in to something when we have more taxes and end up having deductibles change.”
Even more, under AcademicBlue grad students could go to the University Health Services to receive services for free. However, many graduate students do not live within proximity of UHS or can’t go to them for the service they require. If students decide to go outside of UHS, they will pay up to the $350 deductible and then pay 20% coinsurance for services such as labs and x-rays.
It should also be noted that the graduate staff shared that they did not work with the Services for Students with Disabilities department when consulting about the decision to make this health insurance change.
Several students are trying to take advantage of UT Select coverage while they can.
Lorraine Scott is in her 3rd year of pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Sciences and the co-president for the Black Graduate Student Association. This summer, she says she’s rushing to get dental work done before her insurance switches to AcademicBlue. “It’s jarring to deal with one thing after another,” she comments.
Scott had to negotiate a fellowship with the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences in order to stay under the UT Select plan this summer before it switches in September. Now she must get everything done before she’s on AB because the expenses for the services under the plan don’t cover the services she needs.
The staff did make it clear to students that they could opt out of the AcademicBlue plan and stay on UT Select if they wish, but you would have to cover 50% of the premium or work 30 hours a week to get 100% premium support. “You have to pay more and work more, but that’s not feasible for all grad students,” Scott pointed out.
Students feel overworked on top of underpaid. Scott shares that her rush to get orthodontics taken care of has caused added stress on her, which a lot of students are faced with.
In response to Scott’s situation, the UT Graduate School says that AcademicBlue is not a dental provider and that Delta Dental is the dental provider available to students, faculty, and staff. Officials say eligible students will continue to be able to enroll in Delta Dental but one of the benefits of changing to Academic Blue is that students can elect to receive free dental and vision coverage.
Rebecca Johnston is going into her 7th year of pursuing her Ph.D. in the Department of History and is one of the organizers of Underpaid@UT, a graduate student collective that focuses on fighting for better working conditions for UT Austin graduate student workers. She says the organization has been trying to raise awareness and contact the administration about their concerns.
“Graduate students just want to be graduate students. This switch is really unfortunate because it takes away people’s energy from focusing on what we’re here for – to worry about our health care,” she says.
Along with pursuing their graduate degree, many graduate students work on campus as teaching assistants, assistant instructors, graduate assistants, and graduate research assistants.
Johnston asserts that this switch will have an impact on the Graduate School enrollment program. A lot of students come to UT for their graduate program because the health insurance benefits are so great even with the stipends and salaries for students being lower than Austin’s cost of living.
“Now with the switch to AcademicBlue, they’re not going to be able to have that safety net. That’s going to be a deterrent for recruitment, which is a big problem for us keeping a strong graduate program and all the roles that graduate students play in teaching, grading, and conducting research,” says Johnston.
Current students in their programs have already begun to worry about what the switch will cost them not only financially, but mentally with the added stress. The health plan change would have a huge impact on international students who already have limitations.
Under their student visa, they are not authorized to work over 20 hours during the fall and spring semesters. With this restriction, they will not be able to work the 30 hours needed to have UT Select coverage. Even so, students complained that the prospect would overwork and cause extra burden onto them.
“It’s bad for us to get medical treatment because we cannot afford the 20% [coinsurance]. We are really getting a low wage, we’re getting taxed when we switch. We are the lowest-paid population. Any change in the medical is a huge cost for us,” an international student shares in frustration with the staff during the information session.
Continuous summer insurance coverage was also an added issue for students.
In their April 2 email, the university shared continuous coverage was an issue for many graduate student academic employees. “During their studies, students may be self-funded, employed as TAs, AIs or GRAs, or supported by fellowships. As they transition between appointments, students often experience loss-of-coverage or gaps in coverage as their eligibility status changes for the UT employee health insurance plan, UT Select,” it was stated in the April 2 email.
With enrollment in AcademicBlue students are able to maintain continuity of coverage for the duration of their studies, regardless of their status as fellows, employees or self-supported students, and avoid reset deductibles that occurred during transitions between UT Select and AcademicBlue.
The university graduate school staff shared with students that in order to have the 100% premium over the summer, they must have academic benefits-eligible employees.
In order to obtain this continuous, premium support that AcademicBlue offers, graduate students must be teaching assistants or assistant instructors in the summer, which is the same policy as under UT Select.
Staff shared with students during the info sessions that if they were graduate research assistants or graduate assistants that they might not qualify for the premium support and have to cover a monthly premium of $266 themselves if they did not have academic, benefits-eligible jobs.
“We don’t have a choice. We can’t afford $300 a month to pay for UT select. I think it’s very disingenuous the way you guys have presented that. We make less than $2,000 a month. We can’t afford $300 a month,” a student responds to staff.
Though, staff is adamant that students are receiving benefits with this switch. They comment that many faculty and staff members face that same dilemma but they don’t have the option of AcademicBlue that graduate students are getting.
However, many graduate advisors feel this switch is unfair to students as well.
The College of Liberal Arts wrote an open letter to share their concerns about the graduate student health insurance plan. In this letter, they explain the impact the tax difference would have on students and the increase of coinsurance payments.
The graduate advisors of the College of Liberal Art’s request that the Graduate School pause their plan on the new health insurance to ensure that concerns are addressed, that students who enrolled in Fall 2020 and prior receive the health insurance plan they were promised in their offer letters or contracts, and offer full transparency as to the amount of money saved and that the funds will directly benefit the graduate students.
During an information session, the university couldn’t give students a clear answer as to where the money saved was going.
Any savings from the shift in insurance programs, won’t be known until 2023, when savings might start to accrue. The fund that the Graduate School is developing to aid students will not come from any savings that result from this change.
The university has recently shared this:
The university has approved additional investments to support graduate stipends according to the Graduate Education Task Force recommendations. The Graduate School is working with colleges and schools across campus to provide increases in pay to TAs and AIs in programs with lower salaries starting in the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters. In units with lower pay, there will be increases of 20-40% in TA and AI salaries. The university communicated this to students in a May 21 email.
The most recent update in the health plan switch has been the removal of the tax on the premium support.
Graduate student John Mellison and a few others on behalf of Underpaid@UT did research on tax laws to confirm if they were to be held responsible for the tax burden. After numerous emails between them and the school, they emailed students informing them they would no longer be responsible for the tax on the premium support.
The university shared that in an email on June 7, the UT System updated its guidance so that premium support may now be provided as a nontaxable benefit. This updated guidance is based, in part, on the current federal enforcement approach for certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act related to employer-paid premiums.
Mellison and the Underpaid@UT collective stated this in an email to the school, “There are many email correspondences illustrating that students are responsible for this good news, not the Graduate School. We have no background in taxes/law, so it’s frustrating that the Graduate School is making these changes to our health insurance without doing the due diligence that should come with such a big change.”
There was mention of a town hall that is to occur in July for members of the Graduate School community to voice any further questions and concerns.
In the meantime, the Underpaid@UT Twitter account continues keeping students updated and formed a petition, that now has more than 800 signatures, hoping to delay the implementation of the AcademicBlue plan. They even share information to aid students through this change such as what the cost difference in certain services will be and how students can calculate their personal health insurance cost differences.
“We’re not sharing these numbers to add stress, but to be realistic about increases we’ll face and to demonstrate how the Grad School’s rushed, poorly planned decision to switch our health insurance will have big implications for grad student workers who don’t make a living wage,” they tweeted.