Students, state senator address Port Authority, healthcare

By Gretchen Andersen

Over a spread of coffee and pancakes from Pamela’s Diner, students and a state senator… Over a spread of coffee and pancakes from Pamela’s Diner, students and a state senator discussed politics.

The 8 a.m. start time didn’t deter them from addressing hot-button issues such as higher education and health care.

The event, called Pancakes and Politics, was co-sponsored by Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Student Government Board.

Students came to hear state Sen. Jay Costa, Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Leader, answer and discuss questions regarding critical issues such as the Port Authority budget cuts, health coverage and tuition increases during the meeting in the William Pitt Union Ballroom. The audience included more than 80 people — organizer and GPSA President Nila Devanath said it was a good turnout.

Devanath said she chose to invite Costa, who represents District 43, because she wanted to feature someone on the state level so students could ask about issues pertaining to Pitt and Port Authority.

During his address to the audience, Costa emphasized his ties to Pitt. The state senator, who is on Pitt’s Board of Trustees, said he has a “fondness for Pitt.” Both his wife and son attended the University.

Although some students might not immediately associate the state government’s fiscal problems with higher education, Costa stressed the connection.

“If there is a loss in state revenue, tuition increases are a possibility,” he said.

Pitt saw a 5.5 percent tuition increase last year.

Because of Pitt’s close ties with the state, Costa urged students to take action in politics.

“Students have become strong advocates for the state to make good investments in the commonwealth,” Costa said. “We need to replace funds because these students represent the best and brightest and come here to get a fair and reasonable rate.”

Henry Goodelman, a graduate student in the School of Education who said he has spent over $100,000 on tuition and living expenses, attended the event — partly because he is a fan of Costa’s advocacy for higher education, city and commonwealth issues.

“I really think state Sen. Costa pointing out some of the irony in our new governor’s policy was well put,” Goodelman said. “Personally, I think Corbett needs to support higher education, but apparently he is opposed to any new taxes and fees. If tons of money was poured into the field of higher education, it would help many.”

Goodelman hopes for more money to go to higher education, but funds are running dry for many state programs, and politicians are looking for multiple ways to stretch the budget.

Budget problems for the transit situation are one concern to students..

Port Authority will be issuing 15 percent service cuts in late March, creating inconveniences not only for commuters and city residents, but students who live on campus, too.

“We’re trying to make certain that we have a conversation about mass transit sooner rather than later,” Costa said. “We need to find ways in which we can raise revenue.”

One method was met with disapproval from audience member Alicia Williamson, a fifth year graduate student in the School of Arts & Sciences.

“I’m glad he’s an advocate for mass transit, health care and education, but I was disappointed with the solutions he offered for mass transit funding — renegotiating workers pensions. But I’m happy he is against privatization,” Williamson said.

In the past, methods to raise revenue have included a net-profit tax on oil companies or gas taxes, Costa said.

Resolving the situation isn’t limited to lawmakers in Harrisburg — Devanath was quick to point out that students can make a difference too.

Students and community members can sign a state-wide petition on the GPSA website. Devanath said those who sign the petition are voicing support for extra state funding to the transit system.

Devanath said about 300 people have signed the petition, but said 1,000 would be “great.”

Costa also spent time to answer one student’s question regarding the expiration of Pennsylvania adultBasic coverage.

AdultBasic is a low-income health-care coverage program that covers about 41,000 people at a cost of $36 per month. There are also people on the waiting list.

The health-care program is offered through Independence Blue Cross currently projected to be in effect until June 2011.

However, adultBasic might be coming to an early end, with funds set to expire at the end of February.

The state has already sent letters to members to let them know of the expiration, which will mean members and those on the program’s waitlist will have no coverage beyond that date.

Costa said there is another option, called the Special Care program, but it costs about $140 per month and offers different benefits, he said.

Costa also mentioned PA Fair Care, a temporary health -overage plan for those who need insurance and have pre-existing conditions, but said that there are “about 1,000 openings for 42,000 people.”

According to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department website, the premium for PA Fair Care would be $283 a month and that “3,500 individuals could be enrolled in the program in the first year.”

SGB president Molly Stieber urged students, undergraduates in particular, to participate in Pitt Day in Harrisburg, which will take place April 5.  On the trip, students will be able to talk to legislators about issues such as Port Authority cuts and tuition increases.

Devanath said she hoped that students left the event with a sense of their own ability to speak to legislators.

“Most people think they don’t care for one person, that their one phone call doesn’t matter, but people shouldn’t be intimidated by politicians — they work for you,” Devanath said. “I hope they gain a sense of confidence to speak out.”