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Graduate students petition loss of partial healthcare subsidy

By Megan Zahneis, News Editor

A group of graduate students are protesting the recent revoking of a healthcare subsidy from the university.

Since purchasing health insurance became a requirement for graduate students not covered by their parents' plan, the provost and graduate school dean have provided each student enrolling in Miami's healthcare plan with a small subsidy to help offset the cost.

But in June, all graduate students were notified that effective for the 2015-16 school year, the university could no longer offer the subsidy, which usually amounted to about 25 percent of the total cost of health insurance, or roughly $335. The funds came from a pool and were split among all graduate students enrolled in university healthcare plans.

The news came as an unwelcome surprise to graduate students who often depend on the subsidy to make ends meet.

"There was no discussion whatsoever, with any graduate students, that this change could even be coming," said Kelly McHugh, a graduate student of geology and president-elect of Miami's Graduate Student Association for the 2016-17 academic year. "We were really kind of blindsided by it.

"The money that had belonged to us went somewhere else and dried up."

For McHugh, the first step in protesting the cut was to band together, so along with GSA vice presidents-elect Michelle Veite, a graduate student of chemistry and Wladyslaw Betkowski, a graduate student of geology, and Elise Conte and Alex Kugler, who also study geology, she established an ad hoc GSA committee to explore the issue.

"Part of our constitution is to be a voice and advocate for graduate students," McHugh explained. "I think graduate students are pretty siloed in our department[s] and doing our own thing and not talking to each other very much."

The first act of the committee was to circulate a survey to graduate students to find out what the $335 meant to them. The survey garnered 146 responses, about half of which came from graduate students insured through Miami.

Carly Plank, a graduate student of English, wrote in the survey comments that the new policy will affect her next year, when she is no longer covered by her parents' insurance.

"I work extremely hard for my money and the only financial assistance I receive is the money I save by being on my parents' health insurance plan," Plank wrote. "Next year, I may have to apply for food stamps for the first time in my life. I am debt free because I worked hard in high school to earn academic and athletic scholarships. I am debt free because I only shop for clothes once every five to ten years. I am debt free because I do not depend on other people to support me. I am debt free because I have budgeted strictly and I worked close to seventy hours a week with no days off for six months straight before moving to Oxford.

"$335 could buy me two months worth of groceries or two years worth of books for school. $335 could cover my application fees for three to four doctoral or MFA programs. I am frustrated to have worked so hard to stay out of debt only to be at the mercy of a decision that was made without my input and is out of my control at the moment."

Plank's concerns were not the only ones raised by survey respondents.

The GSA committee drew on common refrains in survey responses to construct a formal petition asking for a reinstatement of the automatic subsidy, the provision of optional comprehensive vision and dental coverage add-ons to the existing plan, and for increased transparency on "decisions that directly impact [graduate students'] health and finances."

"We feel like we would at least like to be able to be more involved in making the choice," McHugh said, "because we have a better understanding of what graduate students require for their health insurance. If anybody's able to give that population a voice and understand what they want, then I think [graduate students] are more equipped to do that then somebody who is not in touch with us at all."

The petition was signed by over 1,262 people, including 385 graduate students, 641 undergraduate students, 102 faculty and staff members, 60 alumni, and 74 community members, reflecting widespread support.

"We have a lot of support from faculty and undergraduate students because I think that they understand how crucial and how important graduate students are for Miami in general, and how much we are doing by teaching and mentoring undergraduate students," GSA president-elect Betkowski explained. "They're just surprised we don't have this [money]."

The 705 graduate assistants employed this fall comprised 28.2% of Miami's instructional staff and were responsible for teaching approximately 8% of undergraduates' total credit hours.

One professor emeritus' comments on the petition were especially caustic.

"Our graduate students contribute substantially to the nationally recognized Miami undergraduate experience so proudly quoted by the upper administration. How often have these same administrators spoken more than just casually about the teaching and research contributions and accomplishments of our graduate students[?]," the professor emeritus asked. " I will answer this ... not often or loudly enough. Suffice it to say that I fully support the petition put forward by the Graduate Student Association."

Graduate school dean James Oris explained that the subsidy issue had been a long time coming. The graduate school was initially told it could not use the allocated funds for insurance subsidies two years ago, and have been scrambling for another source of money ever since.

Shortly after Oris committed to the GSA students to find a way to retain their subsidies for the 2016-17 academic year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) informed Miami that student health insurance plans could not be subsidized at all, since they were individual and not group insurance policies.

"Starting January 1, 2017, doesn't matter if we have the money or not, we're prohibited by the IRS from providing a subsidy for student health insurance plans," Oris said. "I'm waiting to get an opinion from the university counsel's office on whether we should go ahead and provide the subsidy this year and risk the IRS coming after us anyways."

Oris' hope is that the IRS will grant Miami an exemption so it can provide graduate students the subsidy for next year. In any case, Oris hopes to locate the funds to provide the subsidy this summer.

"I've committed to providing the subsidy. And if the IRS will allow us to do it this one time, we're going to. But unless the IRS changes its opinion, starting 2017, we're not allowed to do it anymore," Oris said. "By the time we figured out a way to get it back, the IRS made a decision that's going to prevent us from doing it even if we could.

"I feel for the graduate students. The amount of subsidy is modest that we've been able to provide but it's still a few hundred dollars. And that's meaningful."

With Oris' support, the GSA remains hopeful.

"Personally, I'm optimistic about it," Betkowski said. "I see administration working with us and it looks like they are willing to help us and provide us with this money."

And for McHugh, the matter is one of giving credit where credit is due.

"We're all over campus and I don't know that we're recognized as playing such an integral role in Miami's undergraduate education, which is so good," McHugh said. "II think we're a significant part of how Miami works."