Graduate students discuss insurance plan changes at Board of Regents meeting

Sheryl Lawrence

The graduate student-led organization, Underpaid at UT, spoke at the UT System Board of Regents meeting Wednesday to address changes in their health insurance that will be in effect Sept. 1.

Student speakers asked the regents to push the implementation of the new health insurance back a year to allow for more preparation and information for graduate students. Since the new plan was announced in the beginning of April, there have been two information sessions describing how the plan works.

The new plan will automatically enroll graduate students in AcademicBlue instead of the UT SELECT Medical Plan. AcademicBlue currently serves undergraduate and graduate students who are not employees of the University but enroll in an insurance plan from the University. The program also serves international students.

Although graduate students will be automatically enrolled in AcademicBlue on Sept.1, they can reactivate their UT SELECT plan on their insurance portal, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan. Graduate students who choose to reactivate UT SELECT will have to pay an additional $314.02 per month. 

History graduate student Rebecca Johnston said most graduate student employment are 20 hour per week appointments. 

“That doesn’t mean students only work 20 hours a week — nearly all work many more,” Johnston said in an email. “This is just the technical number of hours that UT categorizes us as being working. Many departments bar students from taking additional jobs at UT that would go above that 20 hour/week limit.”

Johnston said for graduate students to access UT SELECT with their pay from the University, they would need to work 30 hours per week, but many departments do not allow this. 

Nearly all graduate student workers at UT make below a living wage for the Austin area, with some making as little as $9,000 a year and most averaging around $15,000,” Johnston said. “UT SELECT, costing an extra $300 a month, is cost prohibitive for people living on these wages.”

The student-led organization compiled notes and information for other graduate students to use to advocate against the changes being made at the University. Some of the major concerns include graduate research assistants having to pay for coverage in the summer if not employed and a lack of transparency about how much money the University is saving with the switch in insurance, according to the document by Underpaid at UT. 

Jonathan Mellison, a middle eastern languages and cultures graduate student, said the graduate school has not answered questions regarding the new insurance plan and has not been responsive to their requests to move the timeline back. This is why Underpaid at UT decided to take their concerns to the board of regents.

In the meeting, board of regents Chairman Kevin Eltife said he was concerned that this was not their jurisdiction, and they usually pass these types of matters on to the president of the institution.

Mellison said there are multiple legal issues that the University has not responded to as well. He said the new insurance violates graduate students’ funding offers and that they are not technically giving graduate students health insurance. Instead, the University is providing a “taxable premium credit” that can only be used to purchase AcademicBlue, which could increase taxes for the graduate student.

Mellison said the most vulnerable people, such as older graduate students, single parents and people with disabilities are the people most affected by the changes.

People who would have had fairly common medical services covered under UT SELECT will now have to cover those costs themselves,” Mellison said.

Raghav Shroff, a UT graduate school alumnus, said he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in his second year of graduate school, but was able to afford treatment under the UT SELECT plan. 

“The medicine for that under UT SELECT was only $10 a month with co-pay,” Shroff said. “Under this new plan, AcademicBlue, it would cost $1800 a month. That’s nearly what my entire monthly stipend was. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I would have to choose between life saving medical care versus finishing my PhD.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information on UTSELECT. The Texan also removed a link to notes compiled by Underpaid at UT because all the information could not be verified.  A link to information about a taxable premium credit was also removed because it was not relevant to the program discussed in that sentence.