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Insuring the Health of UK Graduate Students

by Alicia Gregory

More than 1,600 graduate students now have health-care coverage under a new student insurance funding plan offered by the University of Kentucky. The plan, which began in the 1999 fall semester, offers "no cost" coverage for degree-seeking graduate students who are full-time teaching assistants, research assistants, graduate assistants, or fellowship recipients, or a combination of any of these appointments.*

"At major research universities health insurance is becoming an important part of support packages offered to graduate students," says Mike Nietzel, dean of the UK Graduate School. "To achieve our goal of becoming a top-20 public research institution, we needed to take this step to be able to compete for the outstanding graduate students who play such a key role in increasing the quality of UK research and teaching."

But beyond recruitment concerns, this health-care plan was a tangible way to demonstrate to current graduate students that UK values their contributions, Nietzel says. "The faculty and administration deserve credit for supporting this investment, and the graduate students who advocated for and consulted with us on this plan are to be commended."

The student who focused university attention on this issue in 1998 was Susan Mains, a doctoral student in geography who served as the Graduate School's representative in the UK Faculty Senate. "One of the first things I did was send out an e-mail survey to graduate students to get a sense of what health issues they faced, and the response was amazing. Hundreds of e-mails came in," she says.

Graduate students who are fully funded as assistants or fellows fall under UK guidelines that limit additional employment. Mains says with an average annual stipend of $9,000 and without the option to get insurance from another employer, many students could not afford to buy health insurance. "I learned that one family had to stand in line at the public health department because they couldn't afford the premiums for regular health care, and other grad students were dropping out of school because of medical bills they couldn't pay after accidents, illnesses and pregnancies.

"I've watched my colleagues struggle to stay healthy while teaching undergraduate courses, taking seminars, attending conferences, and undertaking their own research. At some point something has to give and, unfortunately, it's usually the graduate student's well being," Main says.

She incorporated her survey results and information she collected on health plans offered by universities across the country into her proposal to the senate. While several parts of the proposal are not reflected in the health-care plan approved by the UK Board of Trustees last March, Mains says she has received positive feedback from fellow graduate students.

"A graduate student who recently had to have triple bypass surgery didn't have health coverage last year. He said to me, 'Without this plan, I'd probably be bankrupt now.' Just his words alone made the year I spent on this proposal worthwhile."

Under the insurance plan, graduate students have a $450,000 major medical benefit. They pay a percentage of their medical costs, including a $5 co-pay on generic drugs and $15 co-pay on brand-name drugs.

Nietzel says that although details of graduate student health insurance coverage for 2000-2001 aren't available yet, he is hopeful that some improvements in benefits could be realized without too large an increase in the cost of the premium.

*Full-time assistantships are defined as 20 hours of service per week; full institutional fellowships carry a stipend of $8,000 or more.