Graduate students concerned about fitness benefits in upcoming health plan

With a fitness program set to end when insurance providers switch, some graduate students are worried about the impact.

Council of Graduate Students President Sean Chen works out at the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Monday, April 29.

Chris McNamara

Council of Graduate Students President Sean Chen works out at the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Monday, April 29.

Kait Ecker

The University of Minnesota’s Graduate Assistant Health Plan is slated to switch insurance providers next September, a move that will offer students a broader network of services. However, some graduate students are concerned about changes to their fitness benefits. 

The current insurance provider, HealthPartners, offers a Frequent Fitness program that reimburses the user $20 each month they go to the gym 12 or more times. But with the switch to a new provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield, that program will be discontinued. 

After a certain point in their programs, many graduate students do not pay the Student Services Fees that grant them access to the University’s Recreation and Wellness Center. This leads many graduate students to rely on the fitness program. 

Sean Chen, president of the Council of Graduate Students, has heard concerns from graduate students about the switch.

“I think it gives you incentive to go to the gym. It’s good for mental health. It’s good for your physical health,” Chen said. “Many of the people I know use it as well. And it can amount to $240 a year if you go frequently every month.”

Every six years, the Office of Student Health Benefits, which oversees health insurance for the student body, goes through a bidding process for health insurance providers. HealthPartners’ bid was high compared to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s bid, said Susann Jackson, the administrative director for the OSHB.

“I don’t think it makes sense to reduce the quality of health care when we shift from one insurer to a different one,” Chen said. “I think their intention is good. But we want to make sure we don’t lose some of the benefits when we’re shifting.”

The committee evaluating bids chose Blue Cross Blue Shield because of the cost and network of care providers offered in 160 countries, Jackson said.

“The thing that is going to benefit students significantly is that provider network,” Jackson said. “Because we had significant cost savings on this bid, over the next six years those cost savings roll forward for administrative costs. And those savings that we made on this process carry forward not just for the University, but for the students.”

The cost of coverage will increase, she said, but not as much as if they had stayed with HealthPartners.  

“We were glad to see, although still concerned, that there were only 200 students that are going to be disrupted that are using the Frequent Fitness program,” Jackson said. “We’re just still exploring to see if other options can be [made] available for those 200 students.”

Negotiations have ended with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and OSHB is in the implementation and communication process right now, Jackson said. More specific information on the new health insurance plan will be available in June, she added.

“We measure the disruption that our students might encounter, and we felt that would be minimal, very minimal — if at all,” Jackson said. “Students do know that the changes are coming.”

But graduate student Timothy Monko said he did not know the change in health insurance was happening, or that the fitness program would be affected. 

Monko goes to a climbing gym, which he said makes him feel better physically, more productive and less fatigued. He said he is concerned that his specialty gym would not be included in the new plan.

Greg Thurston, the incoming administrative director for OSHB, said the new program will include discounted gym memberships at select gyms.

“Everybody does have or will have that discounted or low-cost alternative at select fitness centers, it just may not be the one that they’re currently at,” Thurston said.

Graduate student D’anna Nelson, who uses the Frequent Fitness program, said she thinks this is not a big concern for OSHB. This program is the reason she can afford to pay for a gym membership.

“I’ve heard a lot of things that the University has said that they haven’t followed through on,” Nelson said. “I’m in more of a position of I’ll believe it when I see it.”