AMHERST – The high cost of health care is taking its toll on University of Massachusetts graduate students.
In an email survey of 500 graduate students, 66 percent of respondents said increased costs and changes to their health care coverage have dissuaded or inhibited them or family members from seeking care this fall.
Of the 135 respondents with children, 72 percent said they had been dissuaded from bringing a child to the emergency room because of an increased deductible.
In August, changes were enacted to UMass’ student health insurance plan in the face of rising costs. The end result was, among other things, a $200 increase by way of an annual deductible, a facet of health insurance that requires a person to pay, in this case $200, worth of medical expenses (excluding co-pays) before the insurer contributes to additional medical costs.
On Tuesday, members of the UMass Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) and the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) unveiled their survey. It explores how changes to the university’s health insurance plan have affected graduate students. While undergraduate students can also take advantage of the plan, GEO and GSS did not study the impact on this population.
About a quarter of UMass students, or 6,590 people, subscribe to the university’s health care plan, facilitated by Aetna, said Edward F. Blaguszewski, director of news and information at UMass. In Massachusetts, all higher education students are required to have health insurance.
“The reality is we’re being squeezed,” said Jeremy N. Wolf, a political science graduate student and GEO member. “We’re being asked to pay more and receiving less.”
The health insurance shifts at UMass campus are playing out across the nation, as politicians debate an overhaul of the system.
Since 1999, health insurance premiums have gone up by 131 percent, outpacing workers’ wages, which rose by 38 percent over the same period, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which annually tracks changes in health coverage and costs. Premiums rose faster than inflation, which grew by 28 percent over the last 10 years.
Of employers who provide health insurance plans, 21 percent reported in 2008 that they reduced the scope of health benefits or increased cost sharing, due to the economic downturn. Fifteen percent report they increased the workers’ share of the premium.
The UMass health insurance plan changed Aug. 1. The main differences between the 2008-2009 plan and 2009-2010 is that students must now pay a $200 plan deductible as well as $200 for any off-campus medical visits. Previously, students could avoid this deductible with a referral from University Health Services (UHS), GEO members said.
Further complicating this issue, UHS is no longer open midnight through 8 a.m., forcing students to seek off-campus care during these hours. Blaguszewski said the change was minimal. UHS was averaging five walk-in patients per night when the center was open those hours, he said.
Other changes include the maximum policy coverage being cut in half to $250,000 for the year. Prescription drug co-pays for generic medicine increased from $7.50 to $10 per order.
“I don’t have $200 to go outside to see a doctor,” said Jackie Walton, a graduate student in need of a mammogram, a service she said is not provided by UHS.
“It worries me because I have to choose between my health and whether I can afford it or not,” she said.
Blaguszewski said that faced with the increasing cost of medical care, the university had to decide whether to increase premiums by 8 percent for everyone or hike up the deductible.
“It’s an issue of how do you strike the right balance,” Blaguszewski said. “The bottom line is costs were going up and we had to make some decisions.”
Making ends meet
Through the UMass plan, students pay an annual premium of $2,322 for an individual and $3,836 for a family. GEO students have their plans subsidized by the university, which employs them. GEO members pay $116 for an individual and $383 for a family.
Wolf said despite the low premium for GEO members, students are having trouble making ends meet. The average GEO member earns $13,000 to $15,000 a year. With the cost of insurance rising and new gym fees (an issue of preventative health, Wolf said) GEO members took a $403, or 2.8 percent, pay cut compared to last year.
“It all adds up,” Wolf said.
GEO has filed a grievance with the university claiming the $200 annual deductible is actually a co-pay and co-pays cannot be modified without changing employee contracts.
The student labor union is also circulating a petition seeking the release of information related to the health plan. It wants to know whether the university shopped around for a new plan for students, how many students are enrolled and how many students have visited off-campus doctors since the policy was put in place in August.
In a public records request for this information, the university replied that some of this data does not exist. GEO expects to receive information on the number of enrolled students by the end of the month.