Ph.D. writes on USG insurance proposal

Photo courtesy of Narayan Shirolkar

The author is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech, and served as Tech’s graduate student body president in AY 2019-2020. He has also been a member of the USG student health insurance plan advisory committee for the last two years.

Tech prides itself in providing an affordable student health insurance plan. Over the past ten years, Tech has maintained and negotiated a separate student health insurance plan (SHIP) from the rest of the University System of Georgia (USG) institutions, largely due to graduate student advocacy efforts.

The Tech administration has consistently supported this arrangement. However, the forthcoming proposal by the USG to consolidate Tech and the rest-of-the-USG plan threatens to put the institution and its students, most of them graduate students, in serious jeopardy.

If this proposal is accepted by the USG leadership, it will disproportionately impact Tech by resulting in a 33% ($660) increase in student health insurance premiums, a 20% ($50) increase in annual deductible and a whopping 33% ($1250) increase in annual out-of-pocket maximums, and a potential loss of dental and vision coverage. This will affect over 6,500 Tech students and their dependents, over 70% of which are graduate students. The proposal is set to be reviewed by the USG leadership as early as the second week of March.

Now, one might wonder about USG’s rationale behind such a decision that would severely impact thousands of Tech students. The main reason behind this proposal is to ensure that students across all USG institutions get the same health benefits and pay the same premium for the health insurance plan, thus providing an “equitable” SHIP. In fact, this proposal would indeed reduce the costs for students in the rest of the USG institutions, bringing down their annual premiums by 11%. This also seems to fit well with the One USG goal being pursued by the system leadership.

Unfortunately, this reduction in premiums for non-Tech students in the system comes at a heavy price to Tech’s graduate student population. Currently, Tech students constitute over 41% of the total enrollment in the student health insurance plans provided by the USG.

Graduate research and teaching assistants (GRA/GTA) as well as international students are required by the institute to be enrolled in the SHIP, resulting in 5,790 students enrolled in this “mandatory” category.

This has allowed Tech to negotiate lower premiums and better benefits such as dental and vision coverage for its students. Additionally, through the Health Fee charged to all on-campus students, Tech is able to operate and provide healthcare through Stamps Health Services.

Since Stamps is funded through student fees ($460 per student per year), most of the physician visits to Stamps are not billed to the SHIP. This results in significantly fewer insurance claims for Tech students seeking healthcare for common illnesses like the flu, minor injuries etc.

This is precisely why Tech has a better SHIP than the rest of the USG. On the other hand, only 9300 students (out of 300,000) from the other 25 USG institutions are enrolled in the USG provided SHIP.

This includes students from other R1 research institutions, comprehensive universities, and other small schools that are the moral equivalents of community college. This low participation rate is due to the fact that these universities don’t mandate their students to enroll in the SHIP and majority of undergraduate students choose to stay on their family’s health insurance plan.

Additionally, many of these 25 institutions do not operate expansive on-campus health facilities like Tech does through Stamps Health Services.

This results in a higher number of insurance claims by these students and is likely the reason why the SHIP annual premiums have been historically higher for these students as compared to Tech’s students. If Tech’s plan continued to be separate from the rest of the USG institutions the same way as it has been, it would result in only an 8.6% increase in premium for Tech students while still reducing the premium for the rest of the USG students by 2.6%. It would also ensure that all the benefits built in the current Tech plan would remain the same, including dental and vision coverage.

Based on these facts, it is clear that the proposed consolidation of Tech and USG SHIPs hurts Tech students far more severely than it helps the rest of the non-Tech students in the USG.

In fact, the USG is trying to lower the rates for non-Tech students by placing the burden on Institute students who are already paying an additional $460/year through the student health fees. In other words, the USG is effectively punishing Tech for providing affordable and excellent healthcare to its students, something that every world class research institution strives for.

All this is based on a terribly misguided notion of equity. This proposal disproportionately affects Tech students, and specifically, its graduate students. Although, this is not a one-off instance. Tech graduate students have time and again been impacted by USG’s one-size-fits-all policies; may it be the issue of waiving mandatory fees for Ph.D. students or lowering the fee burden by getting rid of the Special Institutional Fee or the current issue of proposing a blanket health insurance plan across all institutions.

That brings us to the larger issue. The USG seems to lack a fundamental understanding of how graduate education, especially doctoral research, works at STEM research powerhouses like Tech. The system trying to club together state colleges with no graduate degree programs and institutes like Tech with massive graduate student populations, in an attempt to draft system-wide policies, proves that.

It is either that or an utter disregard for graduate students. If Tech or its students try to advocate for separate policies that recognize these fundamental differences, they are often tagged as being isolationists or “elitists.”

Will the USG come to recognize that graduate students are different from undergraduate students?

Will it acknowledge that treating Tech as a non-unique institution is detrimental to its student population and contributions to the state? Will this acknowledgement be reflected in its policy making?

These questions remain unanswered. One thing is certain, if this proposal to combine the two health insurance plans is accepted by the USG leadership, Tech graduate students will be punished simply because they rightly belong to an institution trying to do the right thing by providing quality healthcare.

One can only hope that the USG will try to get other institutions to follow Tech’s model to improve their student healthcare options rather than pulling Tech’s standards down in order to level the playing field.