UMD graduate students are now required to have health insurance

The University of Maryland's Health Center on Sept. 16, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Starting next semester, all graduate students enrolled in full-time master’s or doctoral programs at the University of Maryland will be required to have health insurance, the graduate school announced in an email last week.

Students can choose to enroll in the university’s Student Health Insurance Plan, provide proof of coverage under an external plan or — if they hold a graduate assistantship — enroll in a Maryland State Employee Health Insurance Plan, according to the email.

Previously, under the Affordable Care Act, all graduate students who were U.S. citizens and permanent residents were required to have health insurance. When the act’s individual mandate was rescinded last January, the graduate school began discussing the “necessity of health insurance,” graduate school dean Steve Fetter wrote in a statement emailed by a graduate school spokesperson.

All present at an October meeting of the Graduate Council — a group consisting of elected and appointed graduate school faculty members and graduate students — voted unanimously in favor of the proposed policy change.

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“The health of our students is important and the policy was created to help minimize the physical, financial, and academic impacts of illness and injuries, especially when they go untreated due to a lack of insurance,” Fetter’s statement read.

According to the minutes from this meeting, posted to the graduate school’s website, Fetter presented data from a survey looking into student coverage choices. Judging from the responses, Fetter estimated that 20 percent of graduate students were uninsured.

Much of the council’s discussion centered around the affordability of SHIP, said student councilor Sheung Lu. Council members heard from representatives from Academic Health Plans, the insurance broker for SHIP, who argued the plan’s benefits and rates were comparable to the plan offered to state employees.

Health insurance under SHIP comes down to about $1,300 for a single student for one year and allows them to seek care at the University Health Center without a deductible or copay.

Lu said he was unaffected by the policy change because, as a graduate assistant, he has been covered by the state employee health insurance plan since he came to the university for the fall 2016 semester. However, he recognized that the new rule could further burden students who are already financially strained.

“If a graduate student was on a very strict budget, and the only [things] they could afford [were] living expenses and paying tuition,” he said, “[A] $1,300 increase a year would force them to go over budget and then put them in a situation where they have to make hard choices.”

According to the meeting minutes, Fetter said he plans to work with the financial aid office to include health insurance at the SHIP rate in the estimated cost of attendance for graduate students. Still, all graduate students — not just incoming ones — will be required to have health insurance next semester.

Portia Buchongo expressed concerns similar to Lu’s. As a doctoral student studying health policy and management — and as a registered nurse — she understands just how important it is to have health insurance.

[Read more: UMD doctoral students say they lack the tools to navigate conflicts with their advisers]

However, even though Buchongo is covered under her husband’s insurance, she worries that the graduate school didn’t consider the unintended consequences that could follow requiring all students to have health insurance.

Would the school set up financial aid packages or a fund to assist students who would struggle to purchase health insurance? Would the health center extend walk-in hours? Hire more healthcare professionals to keep up with a potential increase in demand for services?

A graduate school spokesperson did not provide any details regarding these inquiries.

Yehuda Katz, a computer science doctoral student and representative for the Graduate Student Government, also hopes that the graduate school will do more in the future to inform students that they could be eligible for Medicaid. The email the graduate school sent last week does not highlight Medicaid in its body, but does include a link to a webpage which mentions the program briefly.

In his statement, Fetter wrote that the new policy was supported by “campus stakeholders, including the Graduate Council,” but did not elaborate who these stakeholders were.

Buchongo, for one, is disappointed that more people weren’t looped into discussions before the policy’s announcement.

“I think it was a noble sentiment, in terms of what the intention of the policy is,” she said. “But I do wish that this was brought up even outside of the groups [that were] privy to it, so that it could have been a larger conversation amongst the graduate students.”

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