The graduate employees of the University of Missouri have been facing a serious challenge as of August 14. After recognizing that the IRS interprets their student health insurance plan as an individual plan (as opposed to an employee-sponsored plan), University of Missouri officials realized that subsidies previously provided to employees to pay for health insurance were illegal under the Affordable Care Act. The university discontinued health care subsidies, forcing the burden of health care costs on students. Graduates were given a one-day notice that they would be losing their health insurance subsidies. The sudden removal of the health insurance subsidy puts these employees at risk both medically and economically. CGE stands in solidarity with the graduate employees of the University of Missouri, and welcomes their efforts to organize and fight these actions.
The issue at hand is both one of economic wellbeing of graduate employees, as well as transparency and communication between the University and the graduate assistants. Not only were the employees given a less than one-day notice before they lost their insurance, but the University knew about the subsidy problem three weeks before it notified those affected. MU was first informed about their insurance subsidy problem on July 21, 2015. Eight days later, university lawyers met to discuss the problem behind closed doors, and over two weeks after the meeting, the University informed its graduate employees that they would no longer be receiving their health insurance subsidies. Had the university kept these graduate assistants informed about what was occurring, they may have been able to plan for the loss of that support. But even then, it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to afford to pay for their insurance ($3051 per year for domestic graduate employees) on their own—a 0.5 FTE assistant is paid a minimum stipend of just over $10,000 per year for their work at MU.
In response to the removal of the subsidy, the University of Missouri is in the process of making a one-time fellowship available this Fall Term to all graduate assistants. Fellowship money can generally be used for any necessary expense, but is not specific to purchasing health care itself. Although this may offset some of the financial burden for graduate assistants, it is still unclear when those fellowships will be available, and graduate employee insurance has already lapsed. Furthermore, the fellowship will be much less than the subsidy. Whereas a graduate who received $3051 in the health insurance subsidy per year prior to the change, that same student would be receiving $1240 worth of fellowship money this upcoming year. International students will also be required to pay $1,685 per year for the student health plan in which students are automatically enrolled, which was previously not the case. It is clear that the short-term fellowship does not sufficiently stem the problem for these students.
The University of Missouri has encouraged its graduate employees to look for their own insurance plans on the national health insurance exchange or enroll in Medicaid. However, Missouri is one of the 20 states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the ACA, and the number of students who would be eligible for such a program is not clear. The MU Student Health Center will still be available for graduate employees as well, but these services do not cover special medical procedures, certain types of health specialists, and emergency care, making an additional insurance plan imperative.
The Executive Council of the Coalition of Graduate Employees has two major questions for the University of Missouri. First, if the university could afford to pay $4 million in health insurance subsidies for graduate students last year alone, then why not direct these funds into the creation of employer-sponsored health insurance plan for Missouri graduate employees? With a health plan such as the one used by Oregon State University, the cost would not be much more than the current solution. As graduate employees with employer-provided health insurance, we refuse to accept that this university could not provide their graduates the same. Currently, UM only provides health insurance to full-time employees, and graduate employees are only considered part-time workers.
Secondly, why had three weeks gone by before the graduate employees were informed of the problem? If university lawyers were meeting about the problem, it should have been done in a way that was transparent to the graduate employees at the very least. Had students been able to seek other health insurance before the subsidy was discontinued, they would not have been enrolled in new plans by the time it had been voided. To spring a revocation of benefits on the employees at the last minute is truly deplorable, should not have happened, and should not happen anywhere else.
Luckily, the graduate employees of UM are not letting this one slide. They are beginning to discuss fighting the administration on their lack of insurance, and even possibly forming a union. On Monday, August 17, over 500 students met on campus to discuss their health insurance options and ways to pressure administration to take proper action. They will also begin the school year with a walkout from the classes they are scheduled to teach.
Needless to say, we strongly support the graduates’ efforts to win back their health insurance and welcome their unionization. Given that Missouri is a state in which the right-to-work anti-union mindset is well-established, the development of a graduate employee union would be a great accomplishment for graduate laborers. But most importantly, it may be necessary to prevent such a debacle from occurring in the future.