Bill may give grad students health coverage under UT plan

Matthew Stottlemyre

The University can offer its health plan to graduate and postdoctoral research fellows if lawmakers approve a bill currently in the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs.

The Texas Insurance Code stipulates who qualifies to participate in the University’s employee health insurance program. Graduate students who do research funded by outside fellowships and are not employed directly by the University do not qualify under the code. Proposed legislation would change the code to make research fellows eligible.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, authored the bill. Zaffirini said the legislation will benefit the students directly affected in the bill and also universities themselves by enabling them to attract the best students.

“If a student has offers from three universities offering health benefits and UT isn’t, they probably aren’t going to go to UT,” Zaffirini said.

Astronomy graduate student Chris Lindner received a National Science Foundation fellowship in 2009 that he said allowed him to quit working as a teaching assistant and focus on his research. This year, to continue to afford his health insurance, Lindner said he has had to return to his position as a full-time teaching assistant so he can continue to qualify for the University’s employee health insurance.

He said the University requires graduate students to have health insurance, and for him, the standard student health insurance option does not have enough prescription drug coverage for his family’s needs.

“Now I’m TA-ing even though I have this big fellowship, which is supposed to keep me from having to TA, so I can focus on my research,” Lindner said. “If the people with the fellowships are the best in their fields, we should be doing all we can to make sure they are well taken care of, and we’re doing what we can for them.”

Not all research fellows are ineligible for health care through the University. Their eligibility depends on whether or not they are officially employed by the University.

Julien Carter, associate vice president for Human Resource Services, said depending on the terms of individual fellowships, the University should not experience any meaningful financial burden if the legislation passes.

“Provided the funding source of the fellowship will authorize charges for the fellow’s health insurance coverage, we believe there would be no significant fiscal impact to the University,” Carter said.

He said the University welcomes the opportunity to extend health coverage to these fellows it previously could not. Some qualified researchers would turn down fellowship offers because taking them would mean they could not participate in the University’s health insurance, he said.

“We have wanted this for a few years now because we realized [students] end up turning down these sometimes prestigious fellowships for other options,” Carter said.