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Health-care costs rising for TAs

BY ARIANA WITT | NOVEMBER 17, 2010 7:20 AM

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Ezra Plank remembers the October morning when his 2 year-old daughter woke up complaining of an ear ache.

"The night before, Tekoa woke up at 3 a.m., crying and in pain," said Plank, a University of Iowa teaching assistant of religious studies. "She said, 'My ear is sick, take me to the doctor. I need some pink medicine.' "

After a trip to the UI QuickCare Center in North Liberty, Plank said he and wife Emily discovered their daughter had a double ear infection. Though the visit was covered by the UI health insurance plan, the cost of that coverage — $316 per month on the UIGRADCare Plan — was steep for the fifth-year doctoral student.

"We love the care we receive, but we just wish we had the ability to afford it," Plank said.

At its initial negotiations on Nov. 1, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students proposed that the UI pay for 90 percent of the premium for graduate students with dependents. That's an increase from the 70 percent of the monthly $1,054 Wellmark Blue Cross charges per plan. The increase in coverage would reduce rates for graduate students to about $105 each month.

"We're trying to address the exorbitant costs of people with dependents, especially people with children," said Kari Thompson, the COGS president.

For faculty and staff with dependents, the UI currently pays 75 percent of the premium, said Richard Saunders, an assistant vice president for UI Human Resources.

There are 2,762 graduate students on the UIGRADCare Plan, which was created as a result of COGS bargaining, Saunders said. Students with dependents make up a small portion of that — roughly 700, he said, and the insurance covers everything from medication to equipment.

"It's better than what you might find with a lot of other employees," Saunders said. "And I don't know a lot of other institutions with separate health for graduate students."

Comparatively, he said, student employees without dependents pay roughly $23 a month.

Plank decided to remove his children from the UI plan and put them on Hawk-I Care, an affordable state-sponsored plan.

The cost of dependent health-care coverage for graduate teaching and research assistants at the UI has been increasing by a rate of around $50 over the past two years, Thompson said.

"I can pay the $300-plus if it stays at 300-plus," said Rob Albanese, a teaching assistant in American studies. "But if it keeps going up, I don't know."

Albanese said he has been covered under the plan for around two years, listing his 18 month-old daughter Liliana and his wife as dependents. He said pays approximately $4,000 in premium costs annually.

Having the UI pay more of the dependent coverage would lead to more time with his daughter, Albanese said, and allow his wife to work less.

"We are definitely living paycheck to paycheck," said Albanese, who brings home about $1,200 each month. "It would be nice to have an extra $200 in my pocket."

A plan presented Monday by UIGraduate College officials and representatives from the state Board of Regents did not suggest increasing the UI's portion of dependent coverage for graduate-student employees.

Instead, they presented a three-tier health-care plan that, if approved after the bargaining period, would allow students to use UIGRADCare nationally, Saunders said. Under the current plan, students are restricted to the UI Hospitals and Clinics. But grad students are still hoping for the increase.

"It would simply allow us to survive," said Christine Darr, a TA in religious studies.


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