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  April 21, 2003

Administrators, Student Leaders Work
To Preserve Grad Students' Health Coverage

University officials and graduate student leaders are investigating several options to ensure that health insurance for graduate students will not lapse if the General Assembly adopts a proposal to eliminate graduate student access to the state employee health plan.

Janet Greger, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school, says University officials are facing three potential outcomes: that the legislature permit continued eligibility for the state employee health plan; that UConn provide access to another form of health insurance benefits; or that state Comptroller Nancy Wyman determines it is feasible to create a health care plan for graduate students within the state employee health plan.

"What we will not do," says Greger, "is allow our graduate students to lose their health insurance coverage. It is vital to our students' well being that they have these benefits, and it is of keen interest to the University as protection for our students and as a recruiting tool."

UConn graduate students have had access to the same health care coverage that is offered to state employees since the early 1990s. Greger says being one of the few universities in the nation to offer such a high quality plan to graduate students has helped UConn attract students to Storrs over the years.

"This has been a major recruiting tool for us, and a boon for the students, whose stipends are modest," Greger adds. "We've been on the leading edge of coverage for graduate students for years. We just wouldn't allow our students to go without coverage."

The issue arose in February, when Gov. John G. Rowland presented his budget proposal for the 2003/04-04/05 biennium to the legislature. With the state economy struggling and facing a $900 million deficit for that budget cycle, many programs were slashed. Health care for graduate students, pegged by Rowland's budget officials as $2.1 million in savings, was one of them.

The news caused angst among UConn's 2,200 graduate students in Storrs, who earn their $16,000-$19,000 salaries through teaching assistantships or providing research or teaching support to faculty. An additional 140 graduate students at the UConn Health Center would also be affected.

Of the possible remedies, says Lorraine Aronson, vice president for financial planning and management, giving the students special status within the state employees health plan is a solution that may prove advantageous for the state, the University, and graduate students.

"Graduate assistants are generally young and healthy, and their inclusion in the state plan spreads the overall risk, which helps reduce the overall cost of the state plan," Aronson says. "It also uses the leverage the state has by virtue of buying insurance for 80,000 people," again reducing the costs that would accrue should the University buy coverage for the students.

Currently, UConn reimburses the state for a portion of each student's coverage, and the students, like state employees, pay a portion of the cost to add a spouse or participate in a family plan. The state covers the remaining costs.

UConn officials have tried to calm student concerns through meetings and mailings. And, tonight, the Graduate Student Senate is hosting an open forum on the topic. The session will begin at 7 p.m. in Room 200 of the Whetten Graduate Center.

"The uncertainty is the biggest problem," says Amy Albert, president of the Graduate Student Senate. "Graduate students need to rely on themselves for support, and knowing our health care is in place takes a real weight off our shoulders. As a 33-year-old, I'm young and healthy, but I'm still old enough to know the importance of good health care."

UConn officials want to decide which option to pursue by July 1, so new students can enroll when they arrive in August, and current students can switch to the new plan by Oct. 1, when their current coverage would expire under the proposed change.