Letter to the editor: University administrators fail to show proper concern for graduate students’ well-being

Letter to the Editor

Graduate students are fed up with the University administration. In early September, we realized that there was a substantial rise in health-related costs because of the switch from Health Partners to Blue Cross Blue Shield. The health insurance provided through the University, as per our employment package, has seen a dramatic increase in the co-pays for medications and doctor visits. In many instances, such as birth control and hormonal drugs, we have learned that the new insurance provider has no coverage at all, and many graduate students have yet to receive their health insurance card, which has affected our ability to access even the most basic of health services. Throughout September, concerned for our well-being, many of us spoke individually to representatives of the Office of Student Health Benefits and Blue Cross Blue Shield trying to figure out (to no avail) the reasons behind the changes in our insurance coverage. Many of us had assumed that there must have been some bureaucratic mistakes as the Office of Student Health Benefits (OSHB) emailed graduate students on March 12, 2019 stating that the switch to a new insurance provider would not lead to any changes in our health coverage plan. This was simply not the case. But because of an absence of a common platform for graduate students to band together and share their concerns, it took a few weeks for students to realize the extent of the issue.

In the wake of the negligence the U has shown towards graduate students’ health, we decided to petition the president to make changes urgently. Despite the lack of formal network among the graduate students of the University, in just two days the petition was signed by over 1,600 signatories, including 1,093 graduate students, 481 faculty and staff support, 43 undergraduate signatures and two alumni support. When a group of graduate students went to deliver the petition to President Gabel’s office on Oct. 10, we were told by the president’s senior assistant, Kate Stuckert, that the office was expecting us. Yet, President Gabel chose to ignore us by not being available to receive our petition. Despite their many claims, instances like this make us believe that for University administrators, the well-being of their students is not in their active interest. The University’s approach has been reactionary when it should have been proactive. For instance, consider this excerpt from the email sent a day before we submitted the petition: “OSHB was informed by some individuals that several birth control pills that Blue Cross charged copays for had been covered without copay under HP. We promptly reached out to Blue Cross to request that many more options be added to the formulary as covered at no charge to the participant. This has been agreed upon, but is still a work in progress.”  To have overlooked such a crucial need while awarding the contract indicates the apathy and incompetence of those in charge of processes that are detrimental to students’ well-being. 

The general tone of the email from OSHB has placed the burden of responsibility on individuals, instead of their administrative failure. It should not be up to individual students to figure out various copays on long phone calls with insurance companies in a language that is extremely difficult to parse out. The insurance industry uses the language of deductible, copays and out-of-pocket costs, and in-network and out-network to confuse their clients. When the OSHB communicates with students using this language it can be very hard to follow, especially to the hundreds of international graduate students who have no prior exposure to the American health insurance procedures. 

These ongoing healthcare issues have highlighted to us the need for more substantive and responsive graduate student involvement in the governance process. This means that representatives must be accountable and communicative with the graduate student body. In order to ensure that administrative failures are not a source of trouble for the student body, we demand from the University that a space be made for graduate students to form a collective bargaining organization to hold the University accountable and ensure transparency in future changes to healthcare, fees and working conditions. But a collective is more than the means to meet our necessities. It is, ultimately, a way to ensure the common good of our community.

 Written by UMN Higher Education Worker Center and Grads United. 

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.