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The Pitt News

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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

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Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza.
‘Christmas Day at Pitt’ gathers community for free meals, clothes and gifts
By Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer • December 8, 2023

‘Direct attack’: Health insurance hikes push graduate students’ budgets to the breaking point

Jack Troy | Senior Staff Writer
Graduate students march to the Cathedral of Learning on Friday to deliver their health insurance petition to the Office of the Provost.

Elizabeth Rudzki has about one month to find $4,200 to pay for her upcoming surgery. 

Under last year’s medical insurance plan for Pitt graduate workers, the sixth-year doctoral student in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology program wouldn’t have owed a cent. With the updated plan in effect as of Friday — 17 days after it was first announced — graduate workers are now on the hook for 10% of inpatient hospital expenses. 

“I am having to consider if I need to postpone my surgery,” Rudzki said. “And it’s not elective surgery.”

Many students at Pitt who seek care for a chronic illness, sudden injury or need hospitalized for any reason may hit their out-of-pocket maximum of $4,200 by the end of the academic year. 

That’s 21% of the minimum stipend for graduate workers — an unacceptable burden on too short of a notice, students affected by the changes say. 

“I could have scheduled it such that it was covered under the old plan, but they didn’t give me the decency of that knowledge,” Rudzki said. 

Other price hikes include up to 600% higher copays for therapy and primary care, plus a $250 individual deductible, up from zero. Alison Mahoney, a graduate worker union organizer and fourth-year doctoral student in the theatre arts program, called this a “direct attack” that assumes beneficiaries are young, healthy and without a family to support. 

The University previously offered two tiers of student medical plans — a general plan, starting at a $262 monthly premium, and another offered to graduate workers at zero premium, but available to all graduate students at $425 per month. 

Pitt has merged them into a single plan that, while still zero-premium for graduate workers, costs $244 per month for others and includes benefits mirroring last year’s general plan. Enrollment runs from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, and students must re-enroll each year or lose their coverage. 

Pitt contends that the streamlined plan will help tamp down cost hikes in the long term. 

“As healthcare costs continue to escalate, by combining both undergraduate and graduate student health insurance plans and pools, we will be empowered to negotiate in such a way as to help us offer more affordable plans to all students in the future,” Pitt spokesperson Nick France said. 

But in the short term, many graduate workers are scrambling to budget for medical expenses, and weighing whether seeking necessary care is worth the cost. 

Crunching the numbers

Pitt has historically provided top-notch medical insurance for graduate workers. A now-defunct web page from the Office of Human Resources, taken down sometime this summer, touted a “long tradition of providing students who hold academic appointments with a benefits-rich individual health insurance package at no cost.”

Prior to this academic year, it had been more than 20 years since the University increased the cost of medical insurance for graduate students with academic appointments, according to France. 

The recent changes haven’t totally gutted Pitt’s claim to providing quality, low-cost health insurance to graduate workers. France added that if the latest medical plan were available in the Affordable Care Act Health Insurance Marketplace, it would still be categorized as platinum — the highest level under federal standards. 

Stipends are a somewhat different story, especially when considered alongside the increased medical costs. Including the 4% stipend increase across all departments for this academic year, a graduate assistant or researcher at Pitt will generally earn less than their peers at Penn State or Drexel, for example. 

Depending on their appointment and number of dependents, some graduate students at Pitt teeter close to the federal poverty line. A graduate worker making the $20,000 minimum annual stipend with one dependent would clear that threshold by just $280. 

Picking up a part-time job can take the pressure off for some, but the financial squeeze is much tighter for international students, such as French-native Spencer Fricard. Their visa forbids them from taking most off-campus jobs, leaving the roughly $23,000 they receive from their fellowship in the French department as their only reliable source of income. 

With gender-affirming surgery scheduled for next summer, following nearly a year of screenings and consultations, Fricard has turned to GoFundMe and is considering selling plasma to cover the $4,200. 

“[The increase] is abysmal, based on what we make,” Fricard said. “If anything, we can buy one or two more packs of spaghetti each month…These people have such financial privilege, that they cannot begin to understand, to relate, to realize the impact of those numbers.”

Following the insurance changes, the Office of the Provost created the Pitt Student Health Insurance Medical Hardship Assistance fund, offering a higher maximum request than the existing emergency fund.

“We encourage students who face either chronic or acute medical hardship to seek assistance, as needed,” France said.

‘Anxiety and confusion’

It’s not just a handful of graduate students who’ve decried the pricier benefits — 1,400 and counting have signed a petition penned by the graduate workers union organizing committee and addressed to Chancellor Joan Gabel. 

The petition calls for a return to the previous health insurance plan and reallocation of any funds intended for “anti-union campaigns” to help offset the cost of reinstating the past benefits. Since 2016, the University has paid more than $3 million to union avoidance law firm Ballard Spahr. 

Roughly 50 graduate students marched on the Office of the Provost on Friday in hopes of hand-delivering their plea to Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Amanda Godley, who wasn’t in the office at the time. Instead, Senior Executive Administrator to the Provost Peggy King took notes on their concerns to pass directly to Godley.

Alison Mahoney, a fourth-year doctoral student in the theatre arts program, raises her concerns with changes to health insurance for graduate workers to administrative assistants at the Office of the Provost on Friday. (Jack Troy | Senior Staff Writer)

Four days prior, interim provost Joseph McCarthy acknowledged some missteps in rolling out the insurance changes. 

“I recognize that the University’s actions — especially by not providing advance notice of the change and unintentionally appearing to minimize any student health issue and subsequent cost — have caused significant anxiety and confusion, and I deeply regret that,” McCarthy said. 

McCarthy also announced his intention to create a task force of undergraduate students, graduates, staff and administrators to discuss the design of future health insurance coverage.

In the meantime, union organizers say they’ll be hard at work to make this a matter of collective bargaining. United Steelworkers organizer Richard Granger said an aspirational date for a union election should be “sometime between today and the end of this year.”

Within that lies the silver lining for Mahoney, who’s pushed for a union ever since coming to Pitt in 2020. 

“This has been a really clarifying moment for a lot of grads at Pitt,” Mahoney said. “Grads are realizing now, in a very concrete way, that a union is really the only way to protect us from these sudden changes to our working conditions.”

About the Contributor
Jack Troy, Senior Staff Writer
Jack Troy is a Senior Staff Writer at The Pitt News. A native of Western Pennsylvania, he will graduate in April 2024 with a major in Political Science and a minor in Economics. He worked as a columnist and editor on the opinions desk from January to December 2021, and now writes for the news desk. You can contact him at [email protected]

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