Graduate, international students at KU upset after being notified of 27.5% increase to health care premiums

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

A bus whirs by as University of Kansas students wait along Jayhawk Boulevard on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

Updated at 2:32 p.m. Friday

Graduate and international students at the University of Kansas this week say they received a concerning email about an increased cost that will come into play during the looming fall semester: their health care premiums will increase by 27.5%.

That decision was approved in February by the Kansas Board of Regents, before the COVID-19 pandemic truly took hold in the United States. However, the affected students weren’t informed until recently because the rate increases still had to be approved by the state Department of Insurance — which didn’t happen until June, when the pandemic was in full swing.

“KU leaders then spent time exploring whether there were ways KU might be able to absorb premium adjustments and whether pandemic funding could be used to assist before sharing the information more fully,” KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said in an email.

It doesn’t appear those efforts were successful, though, as an email from Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer on Wednesday told the affected students their premiums would indeed increase by the original 27.5%.

The students seeing the biggest hike are classified as “incentivized students,” meaning they are eligible for health insurance through their employment agreements with KU — such as graduate students who also teach classes. For incentivized students, the total cost of a premium jumped from around $1,770 to $2,260.

Now, Hollie Hall, the graduate student body vice president, said a fall semester with in-person teaching during a public health crisis has become even scarier, as graduate teaching assistants make up nearly 40% of KU’s instructors and are paid an annual salary of $17,750.

“Those students, they are underpaid in comparison to what they do,” she told the Journal-World. “(And) it seems like it’s been one thing after another. You don’t need to be worrying about your health insurance and whether you’ll be covered during a pandemic.”

And based on the increased cost, Hall said most graduate students would have no choice but to worry about exactly that. Hall is also an international student — all of whom are required by law to have the insurance plan to keep their student visas. International students already pay the highest tuition at the university, in addition to university fees specific to them and added costs such as international travel to get to and from school.

In her email to students, Bichelmeyer said the ability for the Board of Regents to continue offering the policy hinged on raising the cost of premiums, and that KU regretted it wasn’t able to keep the premium increases lower.

“Offices and individuals across campus have worked hard to shield students from additional financial burdens by holding 2020-2021 tuition and fees flat, including rescinding the fee increase for international students, and by exempting graduate student employees from the temporary salary reduction,” she said.

“I regret that we are unable to avoid these premium increases, which are outside university control, although we will continue to work with KBOR to help students access coverage at the best available rates,” Bichelmeyer said.

Normally, an international student who is in a doctoral program, like Hall, is also an instructor and therefore qualifies for KU to handle 75% of her premium cost — which wouldn’t make a 27.5% increase feel quite as drastic financially for that student.

But Hall, along with the other graduate teaching assistants in her department, didn’t have their teaching positions renewed this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So since Hall doesn’t have a teaching gig, she doesn’t qualify for the subsidy and has to pay the entire premium costs out of pocket.

For Hall, that means the new yearly premium of $2,260 will cost her $1,130 up front at the beginning of each semester — compared with the several hundred dollars she’d paid in years past. For those who do still have the subsidy, the yearly cost of health care will be roughly $565 — or the equivalent of two weeks pay on a GTA salary.

“It needs to be more accessible for students. We’re aware that the Kansas Board of Regents probably won’t change their minds on this,” she said. “But the way KU deals with it is vital.”

Matt Keith, communications director for the Kansas Board of Regents, said the rate hikes had to be made after the company that offers the insurance plans, United HealthCare, said it had most recently paid $1.07 for every $1 worth of claims made.

“Approving a rate increase on student health insurance is always a tough decision for the Board, but the alternative is not offering a health insurance option at all,” Keith said in an email. “The Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from each university and students, works hard to negotiate options that keep premium increases to a minimum, but ultimately it is United HealthCare that presents the coverage and cost options based on claims history.”

Spencer Shanks, a graduate student in KU’s political science department, said that even though he remained eligible for the subsidy, he was disappointed to see no “proactive action” taken by the university to help students with the additional costs.

“Graduate students as a whole are just barely above the poverty line. It’s a mess,” he said. “The real focus of this is there’s a pandemic going on, it’s unclear what our expectations of being around other people will be, and now we have to worry about possibly not having affordable access to health care.”

The health care enrollment process begins Aug. 1, and KU’s fall semester is scheduled to begin Aug. 24.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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