Grads switch health plans

Bei Hu

University graduate student Christopher Chiappari is concerned about another graduate assistant who will return from his trip abroad to find his health insurance gone.
Chiappari, like other University graduate assistants, received a package in the mail late last week that announced Medica Health Plans of the Allina Health System will provide health insurance coverage for about 4,000 University graduate assistants starting Sept. 1. Graduate assistants are required to submit new insurance applications today or they risk having no coverage during the first two weeks of September.
“I was just surprised (that) it was so quick,” Chiappari said.
Patricia Thompson, another graduate student, worries about coverage for her daughter because details of a new dependent-insurance plan will not be worked out until later this month.
None of these complaints is slowing the pace at which Medica is assuming graduate assistant insurance coverage from HealthPartners, one of Minnesota’s largest managed-care companies. HealthPartners has provided insurance coverage to graduate assistants since 1990.
The University chose Medica “because of the various components that they had in the plan,” said Edward Ehlinger, a director at Boynton Health Service.
A committee of University faculty members and graduate students made the recommendation to change the health-insurance carrier during the last school year. Committee members who reviewed a number of proposals, including one submitted by HealthPartners, said the new plan promises flexible and comprehensive coverage at a reasonable price.
Sara McFee, HealthPartners’ corporate communications manager, said the company has not received official notification of the University’s decision. She said HealthPartners will continue to provide health coverage for other University employees.
Graduate students who work as assistants for 10 hours a week or more at the University qualify for the coverage. The University pays part of or all insurance costs.
During its 1995-96 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the University spent about $3.6 million on the HealthPartners’ plan. The plan was 6.8 percent of the total expenditure for fringe-benefit costs for graduate student.
Brian Short, a second-year doctoral student in epidemiology who served on the proposal’s review committee, said in the past the University has opted to continue using HealthPartners’ plan with “minor adjustments.”
But the rising costs of supporting graduate assistants prompted the University to consider changing its insurance provider for assistants.
Earlier this year, the University’s Office of Budget and Finance released graduate assistant fringe-benefits rates for 1997. The rate represents the percentage of nonsalary benefits — including insurance and tuition — in compensation packages for graduate assistants. Fringe-benefit rates have increased in the last year from 35 percent to 49 percent for graduate assistants taking classes at the University, largely because of tuition hikes.
Matthew Maciejewski, who represented the Council of Graduate Students on the committee, said of the decision: “Because the fringe rate for graduate assistants is so high already because of tuition increases, we wanted to keep the basic insurance cost as low as possible to minimize the increase to the fringe rate.”
Premium rates for health insurance plans are also increasing. Short said under the new Medica plan, the rate increase for graduate assistants will come close to $2 per month for each person. With the HealthPartners’ plan, he added, the rate hike would have been five or six times greater.
Maciejewski said HealthPartners’ new rates are “unjustified.” He, along with other members of the committee, said the switch will not hurt health care quality. “All the proposals came back with a bid based on the same benefit package we’d already had,” Short said.
University and HealthPartners’ sources said the change is unrelated to HealthPartners’ recent announcement to shift some inpatient admissions away from Fairview Riverside Medical Center. The center is planning a merger with the University Hospital. But Short said one of the guidelines of the committee was to “keep as much care as possible in the University system.”