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Community Petitions Insurance Rate Hike

By Beckett W. Sterner

NEWS EDITOR

Over 1,700 graduate students and faculty have signed a petition asking MIT to improve on covering the cost of health insurance through either a subsidy or an increase in stipends.

The MIT petition follows a 60 percent increase in the extended health plan at MIT as well as a disproportionate rise in the cost of living compared to research or teaching assistant incomes.

Thomas A. Pasquini G, one of the petition organizers, said that the ultimate goal of petition was for students to be “treated fairly compared to other institutions.”

The costs at similar institutions such as Stanford or Princeton are several hundred dollars lower; the cost is $1,440 at MIT compared to $864 at Stanford according an article in the Stanford Report, and $730 at Princeton according to its Student Health Plan guide.

Without any changes in the coverage, costs would rise again this year although not by as much as last year, said director of finance and health plans at MIT Medical Ellen Offner. Offner said that the 60 percent jump was a one-time increase due to the depletion of a budget surplus that MIT Medical was using to subsidize the health plan.

Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert said that there will be a “substantial double digit increase” in percentage next year.

Petition addresses cost of living

Jamil R. Abo-Shaeer G, one of the petition organizers, said that the primary intention of the petition was to protest the decreasing ability of graduate students to afford studying at Cambridge.

It is more than a health insurance issue, “it’s a cost of living issue,” he said.

The petition compares the costs of health plans at MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, and also shows the trend in cost of living for the past four years. It can be accessed at http://petition.mit.edu.

Based on a lower estimate for expenses from the Practical Planning Guide for Graduate Students available at http://web.mit.edu/gso/Planguide.pdf, over the past four years, the disposable income for graduate students had already been dropped significantly going into last year.

MIT’s guideline for stipend levels for science research assistants has increased by $6,360 from the 1999-2000 year to this year, however the cost of living increased by $6,145 last year alone.

Extrapolating from the fact that the cost of living has increased by approximately 15 percent over the past two years, another 15 percent increase this year would put the average research assistant into about $2,600 of debt.

The actual contribution of health insurance to this rise in costs, however, is small compared to housing and food: the insurance premium rose by $600 to this year, but a 15 percent increase on housing and food this year would equal a $2,300 increase.

Other institutions subsidize plan

While the true cost of actually providing health care coverage is roughly equal for Harvard, MIT and Stanford, the fraction that is directly paid by the student varies significantly.

In the face of rapidly rising costs, for example, Stanford chose in 2002 to subsidize 50 percent of the premium for graduate students earning more than $2,000.

Thus while the unsubsidized premium costs $1,728, most Stanford students pay only $860.

Ann George, assistant dean for research and graduate policy at Stanford, said that Stanford funded the subsidy in part by increasing the cost of its students to research grants and fellowships and also using some funds provided by the Provost of the university.

The 50 percent subsidy, however, will not effectively keep costs down for much longer because the premium increased by 17 percent this year.

According to the petition, Harvard in some cases pays the entire fee for their graduate students. Abo-Shaeer said that this claim is based on talks with graduate students in the sciences at Harvard.

However, University Health Services Director David Rosenthal said that the subsidy varies across different schools within Harvard and that there is no overall Harvard policy.

Type of possible subsidy unclear

Offner said that the costs for next year would be discussed by a committee of students, including the Graduate Student Council, administrators, and physicians, and that it would weigh the trade-offs between expense and decreased coverage.

“We want to make it possible for students to be here comfortably,” Colbert said. There is “not a whole lot of spare change going around.”

Colbert said that there was currently no preferred method for subsidizing the health premium at MIT.

There are several possible ways that MIT might reduce the amount a student pays, such as including the premium in research grant costs, paying the costs out of endowment income, or increasing the graduate student stipend.

He said that MIT typically increased the student stipend instead of subsidizing the expense internally. However, because graduate student income is taxed by the government, this method has become increasingly inefficient as costs have risen.

During the current budget crunch, however, MIT has decreased its internal subsidy for graduate student tuition by 15 percent, making each student significantly more expensive to fund in a research grant.

Provost Robert A. Brown has said that MIT’s graduate school is already among the most expensive in the nation.