Grad students voice concerns to administrators

Sara Melillo

About 25 graduate students met with administrators for the first time Monday to formally voice their concerns about impending university health insurance rate hikes.

Led by the Graduate Student Association, students met with Interim Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis and Director of Risk Management Chris Johnson for more than an hour, voicing frustrations with the recent rate increase announcement and communication problems between students and university officials.

Administrators announced in early April that graduate health insurance costs would increase from $812 to $1,184 next year and would increase further the following two years to keep the university’s not-for-profit insurance plan afloat.

“We agonized over this decision,” Banis said. “The data was clear that we had to stop the hemorrhaging.”

During the question-and-answer session, students said they were upset that the increases were announced in April, after their summer jobs and budgets had been planned.

Johnson said insurance premiums can’t be established earlier because an actuary needs to collect data through February. He said administrators told graduate school officials in November that rate increases might be necessary.

Students and administrators also discussed using private insurance plans. But Banis said NU is wary of outside plans that provide inadequate coverage.

“Our concern is with the plan we’ve heard out there that covers 100 percent of the first $5,000 and then covers 5 percent of the next $45,000,” Banis said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Johnson said if students find a comparable plan at a lower cost, NU will work with students.

“We’re insulating you from a commercial marketplace,” Johnson said. “If you find a plan out there that looks better, my door is open.”

Students pressed Banis and Johnson to persuade NU to provide compensation for next year’s planned increases. But Banis said NU’s budget is already decided for next year.

“We can’t just turn the ship on a dime,” Banis said. “We’re headed in the direction (of subsidizing) and we’ll get there over time.”

Students also asked administrators to set aside the 0.75 percent stipend increase allotted for next year to lower all student insurance rates.

Banis said he would pass the idea along to the appropriate school officials.

Banis said he also will discuss allowing students to spread their insurance payments over the year. Graduate students currently must pay their entire fee at the beginning of the school year.

“I can’t commit but to tell you we’re trying our very hardest,” Banis said. “If I had to make a lump sum insurance payment, I’d be in a meeting as well.”

Before Banis and Johnson spoke, GSA Planning Committee Chairman Christopher Swift presented a revised copy of a letter protesting the rate hikes and a petition, both of which will be sent to administrators.

Organizers plan to distribute the petitions immediately, collecting signatures from graduate and undergraduate students, faculty and administrators. GSA Petition Committee Chairman Coleman Hutchison said an e-petition will be running by midweek.

“Don’t make up any names,” he cautioned. “Peter Frampton isn’t a graduate student here.”