Graduate students protest for improved health care

Kane Loukas

Emblazoned on one of the yellow placards bobbing over the crowd at Friday’s health care rally was the message: “Sick Graduate Students Can’t Teach!”
More than 200 students along with interested spectators and faculty members gathered on the steps of Northrop Auditorium to push for improved graduate student health care. After an hour of protest, the crowd marched to University President Yudof’s office.
The students filled Morrill Hall chanting, “Ho-ho, hey-hey, health care has got to stay.” University Police promptly asked them to leave. The rally was organized by the Graduate Student Organizing Congress, a campus political group focused on unionizing graduate students.
Headed by Andrew Seligshon, a political science graduate student, the protesters laid out demands while an energetic crowd voiced its support.
“The U depends on these grad students for their future reputation,” said Tom Walsh, a physics professor.
He and other speakers said the University should provide graduate students with the same benefits and respect as other school employees.
Graduate students do 45 percent of the Twin Cities Campus’ teaching, yet collect minimal compensation, said Brigetta Abel, a German doctoral student and member of the Graduate Student Steering Committee.
Medica, the University’s health care provider since 1996, covers only the most basic of needs. Any additional services come at a high cost.
Under Medica, graduate student dental coverage takes care of preventative care such as teeth cleaning and general checkups. Medica also provides dependent coverage at a rate of $243 per month. For all other school employees, it costs $22 per month to cover a dependent.
Such extra costs hit graduate students hard. A monthly income of $800 to $900 makes covering a dependent difficult. And for a single parent, the costs push coverage well out of reach, said some students.
Those students suffering from chronic health care problems like diabetes are at an even greater loss with Medica. When the University changed plans two years ago, many had to switch doctors and medications. Co-payments were also added to prescription purchases. To illustrate these prescription co-payments, supporters in barrel-size Prozac tablets accompanied a speaker.
Administrators said they are very concerned about the situation. “We are working together to get the process going, but we are fearing increased costs to maintain the status quo,” said George Green, a Graduate School associate dean.
Aware of the costs involved in covering 4,000 graduate students, Seligsohn said there isn’t enough money for everything and many programs are underfunded. But he insisted “the University can’t balance the budget on the backs of people making $10,000 a year.”
Friday’s rally emphasized the advantages of the Graduate Student Organizing Congress and graduate student unity.
The group’s officials said, if they are successful, graduate students will get the leverage they want. “Unionization will professionalize grad students and help them gain some respect for all the work we’ve been doing,” Abel said. “People gathered together to show the administration that they deserve fair health care.”
Both students and administration are struggling with Medica. On Feb. 3, Medica stated that $5 million is needed to break even on the University health plan. The health maintenance organization also announced a 30 percent increase in premiums. On Sept. 1, Medica’s contract is up. By then, some students and administration said they hope to have a better plan completed.