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Even After Compromise, UGA Grad Students Say Insurance Spike Is Still Too High

Courtney Balling had misgivings when she was considering leaving Vermont to enroll in the University of Georgia’s crop and soil graduate program. "I was warned against moving back to Georgia because we'd probably pay more for our health insurance or lose it,” she said. “That was the case."

On the day Balling found out that health-insurance rates for grad students’ partners were tripling, her husband, Sam, suffered a slipped disc. "He's willing to see me through this PhD program, knowing we have to fight this fight," she said.

The University System of Georgia informed grad students of the rate hike over the summer. After much backlash—including a contentious town-hall-style meeting and a United Campus Workers protest at the Arch—USG said recently that it would cut rates for 2018–’19 by nearly $2,000. But that still leaves married students paying significantly more than they have been.

Mark Myer, the husband of a UGA PhD student, said the price reduction is not enough. “Doubling the cost of health insurance rather than tripling it is not a real compromise,” he said.

Myer’s yearly premium went from roughly $2,076 to $7,629 in August. With the reduction, it would be $5,645, although he’s opted not to sign up this year. 

Myer is a researcher at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and does not receive health-care benefits through his job. For him and his wife, this unexpected increase was especially worrisome, since they’re expecting a daughter in January, and their insurance provided by USG was going to cover their new family. 

USG decided that, since the claims of dependents and spouses of graduate students were higher than other groups during the prior year, it would increase premiums just for spouses of graduate students. In 2017–’18, dependents’ claims were 481 percent higher than university students, Karin Elliott, interim vice chancellor of human resources for USG, said at a town hall meeting at UGA. 

“The priority for USG is keeping the student health-insurance premium most affordable,” Elliott said. “Keeping that main purpose in mind, what we decided to do, since those spouses and dependents are really driving the cost of the plan… is shifting the approach of the premiums, so those dependents pick up the cost of the claims that they are really picking up.”

The other option for USG was to increase the premium of every individual on these plans by 13 percent, or $20 a month. 

Many graduate students, like Myer, had the same response to USG’s actions: Tripling premiums feels like the equivalent to being kicked off their health insurance. “Anyone could tell you that this violates the spirit of health care,” Myer said. “The whole point of health-care insurance is to share the costs of health care from people who take up a whole lot of health care to people who use less… and everyone splits the cost of that. Charging people for the exact amount of health care is not insurance. You might as well not have insurance.”

UGA held a town hall meeting on Aug. 23 to talk out concerns about the new health-care premiums. However, the meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning—a time when many of those affected were either in class or at work, and thus unable to voice their opinions. 

One graduate student said at the meeting that she and her spouse would have to move back to China, because they couldn’t afford health care in addition to the cost of living after USG’s unexpected rate change. Another said at the Arch rally that his wife was forced to go to Canada for surgery.

Graduate students are advised to explore options in the private insurance marketplace or the federal health-insurance exchange, said Greg Trevor, UGA’s executive director for media communications. However, those who can sign up for their spouse’s insurance through work are not eligible for the exchange’s subsidies, even though graduate teaching assistants only make about $20,000 per year (in addition to a tuition waiver).

"It might be better if they didn't offer dependent insurance,” said a graduate student in anthropology who gave his name as Aaron. “Something to consider. It might be cheaper that way."

Critics say the hike will hinder UGA’s ability to recruit graduate students. Myer said his wife chose to attend UGA mainly because of the insurance benefits the university offered at the time. 

"I can't in good conscience recruit a graduate student without telling them, 'If you are married, you may not want to come here. If you have a family, you may not want to come here,’" history professor Cindy Hahamovitch said. 

The effect will ripple out to undergraduates, too, because graduate students teach many of their classes—which points to the larger issue of UGA potentially exploiting low-paid student labor.

"The role of tenure-track professors has become smaller and smaller. In the philosophy department, for example, graduate students teach half the [undergraduate] students," philosophy professor Richard Winfield said. "This is not how it should be. This is not how it is at other universities.”

News Editor Blake Aued contributed reporting.