Forum to be held on changes in graduate student health care policy

A subsidy that was once $3,051 has been replaced by a one-time payment of $1,240.

Graduate Students who are employed by MU were left scrambling for health insurance after they were informed via an email from the MU Office of Graduate Studies that the university would no longer be offering them a subsidy to pay for their health care.

The announcement that MU will not be paying for graduate students' health insurance has sparked anger and confusion. A forum will be held Monday at 12 p.m. in the basement of Middlebush Hall to discuss the change.

"Folks are angry," Graduate Student Association President Kenneth Bryant wrote in a facebook post. "We were all caught flat-footed with this drastic revocation of a need and benefit that had been promised to us by our programs and the university."

The change comes after an IRS interpretation of the Affordable Care Act that prohibits employers from giving their employees subsidies to pay for health insurance on the private market, according to a website about the change. At MU, graduate students were previously given that subsidy, and they were free to choose their health care provider. Now, they can enroll in the student health plan through Aetna, use the ACA Exchange or find another health care provider. Graduate students also have access to the MU Student Health Center.

Other MU employees are on a separate health plan.

As a way to continue to provide assistance for students, the university has opted to provide fellowships to the affected students. The fellowships are combined with the stipends students receive from their jobs around campus, according the website. The subsidy was $3,051 for students designated at .5 full-time equivalent. Those students will now be getting a one-time payment of $1,240.

The Graduate Student Association is working to address this issue, according to Bryant's post.

Kristofferson Culmer, the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students president, said in a statement posted on the MU Graduate Professional Council’s facebook page that NAGPS is also looking into the issue. NAGPS is a national organization that advocates for graduate students at local, state and federal levels.

“This is a problem that is caused because of the IRS's interpretation of one of the provisions in the ACA, see this," he wrote. “The best thing to do now is to try to bring as much attention to this as possible. Social media is a good place to start."

Since the news broke Friday morning, students have been tweeting at Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and MU. Rep. Kip Kendrick tweeted that he was looking into the situation. A private facebook group has also been created for students to discuss the change. MU Graduate Professional Council encouraged students to tweet using #GradInsurance.

Some graduate students questioned if this change in policy could be considered a breach in contract. Per the FAQ on the website, university attorneys will evaluate breach of contract claims on a case-by-case basis.

MU officials became aware of the issue July 21 and notified students Aug. 14, the day before health insurance coverage began for the fall, according to the website. During that timeframe, MU reached out to other universities, spoke with the Council of Graduate Schools and the American Council on Education for their opinion and reviewed the budget.

The university will spend about $3 million on these fellowships, compared to the $4.3 million it spent last year on subsidies. In 2014, 3,100 students received the subsidy, and 70 percent of eligible students opted for the student health insurance plan.

If the policy didn't change, MU would've been fined $100 per student per day or $36,500.

Graduate students are being affected across Missouri and the nation. UM Board of Curators student representative Tracy Mulderig tweeted that she found out about UMSL's change July 29. They are dropping the subsidy entirely, according to her tweets.

"Nevertheless, it is the position of the Executive Board of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) that graduate student stipends need to (and must) be increased - and intend to make this a priority with administrators - now more than ever," Bryant wrote.

The MU Office of Graduate Studies announced earlier this summer that it was raising the stipends for graduate students with a 10-hour job. However, it was also cutting the tuition waiver in half for those students.

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