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The Point: Promoting Health for UMB's Graduate Workers


This week’s edition of the Point was guest written by Chidimma Ozor Commer, LMSW, MSW, MA, who is a PhD candidate in the School of Global Inclusion and Development and a member of the GEO Organizing Committee

Like other campus unions, GEO is about to begin bargaining.  One of the most pressing issues graduate students face is a health insurance gap that happens every damn year in August.  The (very expensive) student health insurance plan (SHIP) goes from August 1 to July 31. The possibility of a lapse in coverage occurs because graduate student employees are not automatically re-enrolled in healthcare coverage. Instead, we are told we need to wait until August 8 or August 9 to determine if we have coverage for the following year. The best part is that the University charges us without enrolling us.

In my situation, in 2021, when I insisted that the Bursar’s Office do their job so I would not experience a lapse in coverage, the then-head of the office was completely unconcerned about the potential implications of my being without insurance.  Unfortunately, for many students, these concerns are not theoretical.  This unnecessary gap has real implications:

•           One graduate student employee had imaging and testing ordered and was asked to pay between $4,000 and $5,000 out of pocket because their health insurance had lapsed during the summer.

•           Some graduate student employees leave SHIP in order to get better and less expensive healthcare coverage.

•           Some graduate student employees do not get medically necessary treatments in order to avoid incurring costs, even with health insurance.

•           Some graduate student employees must have their families help them with the costs of healthcare coverage because graduate employees are required to pay for SHIP upfront.  There’s no way to break up the payments.

•           Some graduate student employees are also parents. Adding dependents makes the already exorbitant cost simply unaffordable, especially for graduate employees who are not paid a living wage.

One GEO member asked, “Since we are not paid a living wage, it is unreasonable to also ask that we pay for the health insurance too?  How am I supposed to pay for it?” Another GEO member shared, “Not only is the premium expensive, but the deductible is enormous. I am still paying off an urgent medical visit from two years ago because none of the necessary tests or treatment I had were covered until I paid $2,500 out of pocket. That's almost four months’ rent for me.”

UMB purports to be anti-racist and health promoting. One literal way UMB can be health promoting is to ensure that graduate employees have consistent, year-round, health insurance coverage in a systematic and streamlined way. UMB graduate student employees are committed to teaching and/or research despite their low salaries (especially when compared to other nearby institutions). Their commitment to the important work is not dissimilar to UMB staff and faculty commitments to their work.  UMB should be committed to alleviating what stressors they can. One easy way to help alleviate stress is to provide graduate student employees healthcare coverage all year.

Stay tuned.  Next time I guest write the Point I will write about another pressing issue: how UMB handles summer employment for graduate student employees.