October 11, 2007

Grad Students Lobby C.U. to Win Health Insurance for Dependents

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With approximately 7,800 students enrolled in graduate programs and professional schools at Cornell, the cost of the University’s health insurance plan can pose serious problems to not only students, but their families as well.
According to student-elected trustee Mao Ye, there are at least 1,200 dependents of students at Cornell; a dependent is a lawful spouse or same-sex partner of an enrolled Cornell student, or any unmarried child under the age of 19 who is not self-supporting and who resides with, or is court-ordered to receive insurance by, the enrolled Cornell student.
Of these dependents, according to Ye, only 224 spouses and 161 children are covered by Cornell’s Student Health Insurance Program. 75 percent of eligible dependents, he said, run the risk of being uninsured, and he estimated the number of those uninsured to be at least 400.
Dependents are not automatically enrolled in SHIP, so obtaining an exact count of those enrolled in other health plans is difficult because they would have to volunteer their health insurance information to the University. Accordingly, Ye’s tally of 400 is unconfirmed and he considers it a low estimate, the real number being closer to 800 people.
Ye claimed there is a direct correlation between the cost dependents must pay for SHIP and the number of dependents uninsured at Cornell. For the 2007-2008 term, SHIP costs $3,149 for dependents, a sum far greater than the $1,434 premium an enrolled student must pay.
Many graduate researchers and teaching assistants earn approximately $20,000 at Cornell for a nine-month appointment, according to Ye. As the SHIP plan for dependents costs $3,149, and the average Cornell graduate financial aid package is $2,500, paying for a dependent’s coverage is an expense many graduate students do not take lightly.
“My wife and I found the cost of dependent coverage very prohibitive. Because of the high cost relative to the fixed income of the graduate stipend, it wasn’t an affordable option for us,” said Jonathan Senchyne, a Ph.D. student in the English department. “I certainly hope that Cornell has the good sense to recognize where there are serious gaps in coverage and to be proactive in lowering barriers to coverage for graduate student families.”
The tight job market in Ithaca also contributes to this abundance of insured dependents as spouses of Cornell students have reported on the difficulty of finding local jobs.
“It is a huge issue that grad students face — their spouses not being able to find work,” said Anne Agler grad, who moved to Ithaca to pursue a course of study in nutritional sciences while her husband kept his job by working from home. He uses his income to pay for health insurance through Cornell.
“If I had known this difficult health insurance situation for spouses, it would have affected where I went to school,” she said.
The cost of health insurance for international graduate students, according to Ye is “even more severe” as the United States government requires them to show a $7,500 to $9,000 “dollar bank certificate” to bring their spouses.
“This money may not be a big number here, but it is well beyond the total assets of a student if he is from a developing country, where per capita GDP is only 10 to 20 percent of this number,” he said.
A cyclical trend emerges from the growing number of people without insurance. According to Ye, while people with serious or “high-risk” health ailments purchase insurance, those who do not feel an immediate risk will go without it. Such a pattern will lead to higher costs of insurance, and will ultimately lower enrollment.
“If we continue on this path, dependents’ health insurance will disappear, and we need to stop before we reach this point,” he said.
A universal problem also amounts from the decreasing number of people with health insurance as they are often unable to afford medical care at times when it is needed. The Chickering Group, a company that provides health insurance to many students in the United States, outlines the costly nature of seeking medical attention without insurance. It claims the average cost of a clinical visit to be $200, the cost of a visit to an emergency room to be $600 and the cost of staying in a hospital to be approximately $2,500 a day.
“There is a risk for those uninsured to spread diseases, which poses a danger for the whole community,” said Ye.
To inform the Cornell community of these health insurance-related issues dependents face, Ye, along with Shawn Kong, funding policy chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Association and Rui Zhang, GPSA pay and benefit chair, collected signatures on Ho Plaza yesterday. They hoped to both inform students of the problem, and to inspire dependents to approach the University administrators with their problems.
“This is something we can do if [dependents] make their voices heard,” said Kong.
They collected approximately 500 signatures and considered their petitioning successful.
“Many undergraduates signed. They showed good morals, and they wanted to help others in need. I was touched by the sense of justice the students at Cornell showed,” said Ye.
Ye will present this health insurance problem to the Board of Trustees on Oct. 19. He is currently collaborating with colleagues from the GPSA to create a low-cost health insurance plan that would have wide-reach within the graduate student community at Cornell.