Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Widening the Wellness Wars at Penn State--A Report From the Student Front

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

One of the most contentious issues that now drive university-stakeholder engagement is health care and benefits. This issue has implications not merely for the substantive issues of benefits for employees at universities, but also touches on core issues of shared governance and university culture that will contribute to the changing character of universities going forward. I have been following the wellness wars at Penn State because the university appears to be an "industry leader" in these matters and what happens here will likely shape the way that universities generally will approach these issues. Penn State is not unique--most large universities have, perhaps on the theory of "benchmarking strength in numbers", have coordinated loosely (though I have no idea whether it was intentional or instrumentally managed) on similar approaches at roughly the same time. I have chronicled some of this engagement (e.g., The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function; The "Narrative Advantage": The Two Faces of Wellness Programs at Penn State and the Importance of Control Its Master Narrative; The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives).

While these discussions have centered on faculty and staff, universities have recently opened a new front in their wellness wars--one directed at students. (e.g., The Wellness Wars at Universities Opens a Student Front). This initiative will likely have profound changes on the relationship between universities and their students (especially their graduate students). And, like similar movements to professionalize student athletics (see, e.g., Alicia Jessop, Northwestern Student-Athletes Clear The First Hurdle To Unionize, Forbes, March 26, 2014; Irony and Incoherence in the "Professionalization" of University Education) these moves to "manage" benefits for students will likely also contribute to the move to professionalize graduate students.

Like student-athletes, these students occupy multiple positions within the university. They are both students and also employees, in their latter role playing an increasingly important role in substituting for full time faculty positions (tenured or contract) and serving to leverage senior faculty research projects--which appear to benefit the university in real ways. As these roles change in importance and become unbalanced it is likely to affect the way in which students see themselves and how they respond to changes in "working conditions" offered by the university.

Those changes can be seen at work at Penn State. This post provides an update of the moves and counter-moves that pass for dialogue on these issues at Penn State. Beyond the obvious--the way that ego and hierarchy, the way that entrenched ways of looking at things and the passive "virtues" of incremental modifications to effect profound change--the current state of relations suggests yet more evidence of the consequences of failures to build trust through engagement and open, honest dialogue. Hard decisions will always have to be made in large institutions--but in a university setting, certainly, they need not be made through a hierarchical structure that impedes rather than fosters cooperation and joint effort for a common cause. 

First, it appears that the students have now acquired more than 1,000 signatures on a "Change.org" petititon seeking to undo recent proposed changes to graduate student benefits. The petititon follows:

Petitioning Penn State University Administration

I demand that Penn State ensure that graduate students do not experience pay losses as a result of the increased costs for health care.
Petition by
Danielle Rhubart
State College, PA

The proposed health insurance plan will create a financial burden for many graduate students and their families. Graduate students provide invaluable teaching and research assistance both formally and informally to Penn State University. Given the amount of publications, teaching, and additional support we provide to this University, we do not believe it is right to expect us to experience pay cuts in order to maintain our right to affordable healthcare. By coming together, we believe that graduate students can unite with one voice to advocate for a stronger commitment from the University to ensure our basic rights to affordable health coverage that does not result in a pay cut.
 Student activism has gone on-line with a Facebook page: Health Care Unites Graduate Students HUGS Penn State.

There has been some local press coverage.  Mallory Lane, PSU Grad Students Worried About Rising Health Care Costs, We Are Central PA.com,  March 27, 2014

Some Penn State graduate students are voicing their concern over the changing health care policies provided by the university.

Students said they just learned of the changes last month, but the university has been discussing the matter since this past September.

Some students said if the costs of the new health policy go up as much as Penn State is saying they are, they may have to transfer or drop out because they simply can't afford it.
. . . .
The proposed plan will increase student premiums by nearly $1,000. Those students with spouses and children will see even more of an increase.

Right now, students with health care through Penn State have 100% coverage. The new plan only covers 90%, meaning the annual deductible for an individual will change from $75 to $250. The cost will nearly double for Castaneda and her children, from $225 to $500.

Fellow grad student Azita Ranjbar is concerned, too, but about more than just the change. She said a lot of students are mad they weren't told sooner.

"Penn State is trying to move on to a new culture of transparency and inclusion, particularly as we move from President Erickson to our new president," she said. "We would like to communicate that we would like to encourage Penn State to be very transparent, very open with sharing information." (Ibid).

Advocacy media have also now weighed in.  Here are excerpts from  an editorial, Sean Flynn, The Voices, Grad Students Give More than They Get, March 5, 2014.

Penn State's working graduate students give a lot more than they get. In fact, the closer you look, the more they look like underpaid employees.

They write and publish papers just like full-time university faculty. They perform experiments and conduct much of the research supporting Penn State’s $800 million annual research budget. They teach the same classes as full-time university faculty, sometimes to hundreds of students per class, and sometimes without any pedagogical training, or even personal experience with the skills they’re trying to teach.

Graduate students on assistantships are expected to be researchers, teachers, and students simultaneously, and they’re expected to do it for salaries so low that many of Penn State’s 14,739 graduate students qualify for food stamps. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator says that a living wage for one adult in State College is $18,469 — and even that salary would make its recipient eligible for food stamps.

According to The Graduate School’s website, the median assistantship appointment is a half-time grade 12 assistantship paying $17,316/yr. The university adds full-time in-state tuition and fees to that figure, and says that in-state graduate students are actually compensated to the tune of $32,316/yr, and even more for out-of-state students.

But Penn State paying tuition expenses to itself doesn’t put food on a graduate student’s table, fix their car, or pay their rent, and it doesn’t make $17,316/yr a livable wage. In return, graduate students perform the daily work of the university, but for a fraction of the cost of a new professor (average salary: $71,500 for an assistant, $86,000 for an associate, $129,700 for a full professor).

. . . .

It’s time to consider a different model.

By contrast, the University of California’s graduate students have unionized. Their union, UAW 2865, negotiated a collective bargaining agreement protecting working graduate students and classifying them as Academic Student Employees (ASEs). That contract grants ASEs many of the rights of university employees — including the right to participate in university childcare, employee parking and transit programs, and healthcare programs.

Through direct action, UC graduate students have also secured tuition freezes, 100% healthcare premium payments, and job security. Just as importantly, graduate students in the University of California system have an avenue to appeal unfair or inequitable working conditions to someone who isn’t in direct control of the future of their career. The agreement also guarantees graduate students personal illness leave, and guaranteed maternity/paternity leave.

The University has set out its position publicly as well.  Here it is in full:
Penn State News, University officials address 2014-15 graduate student insurance changes; Increase in stipends and University health contributions expected
March 28, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State officials spoke with an overflow gathering of graduate students Thursday (March 28) in the Katz Building Auditorium about ways the University is working to mitigate the rising projected cost of graduate student medical insurance.

The rise in costs, outlined below, stems from increased student use and factors directly and indirectly related to the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA).

While the University is not in control of the insurance plan changes, Regina Vasilatos-Younken, interim dean of The Graduate School, said the administration is working with the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and other members of the graduate student community to mitigate the impact of those changes where possible.

To offset the increase in premium costs, Penn State will increase the University's premium contribution from 70 percent to 75 percent for plans that cover the graduate assistant, fellow or trainee and his or her spouse/domestic partner or children. The University's contribution for family coverage will increase from 70 percent to 76 percent. The individual plan contribution will be maintained at 80 percent. This is expected to keep the net increases to insurance premiums for all graduate assistants for 2014-15 at $30 or less per month over the next 10 months.

"The other commitment in terms of trying to mitigate the impact that this will have is to increase stipends by 3 percent across every grade level," Vasilatos-Younken said. Although the University's budget cannot be finalized until the appropriation amount is determined by the state later this summer, this stipend increase is a priority item in the budget.

"Penn State's commitment in this, and it is immediate and it is continuing and it is for the future, is to ensure that we can provide affordable and quality care coverage for our students. We work very hard to recruit the best graduate students, and you're all sitting here," Vasilatos-Younken said. "The last thing we're going to do is invest to bring you here and not let you complete a degree because of something like student insurance."

While these steps will moderate premium increases for graduate assistants, other cost issues remain, so a task force will be established to explore further solutions to the challenges created by the ACA. The task force, which will include representation from relevant University administrative offices, The Graduate School, students from GSA (the Graduate Student Association), UPUA (the University Park Undergraduate Association) and CCSG (Council of Commonwealth Student Governments), will be charged to bring forward its recommendations by July 1. The task force, will explore topics including:

-- Health Reimbursement Accounts to help with out-of-pocket expenses.

-- Indexed premium structure to assist those at the lowest stipend grades.

-- Increase support to expand Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at University Park to reduce the need for off-campus care.

-- Partnerships with other peer institutions in organizations such as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) to negotiate future contracts with insurers that benefit from a larger pool of students on one plan.

Penn State has a multi-year contract with Aetna Student Health that precludes the University from looking to other companies for different student policy plans and solutions.

The 2014-15 plan design provides more comprehensive coverage than what was provided before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, the cumulative effect of all of the ACA requirements was to escalate the cost of coverage. In particular, the plan details presented by Aetna for 2014-15 include:

-- a 30 percent increase in premiums;

-- a $250 individual deductible (up from $75) and $500 family annual deductible (increased from $225);

-- 90 percent coverage in-network up to an in-network, out-of-pocket maximum of $1,350 per individual and $2,700 for family coverage; and

-- an emergency room co-pay of $150 (waived if the individual is admitted to the hospital).

Prescriptions, which are covered 100 percent at University Health Services (UHS) or 50 percent outside of UHS, are not projected to change from the current plan.

Students speaking at the meeting told their individual stories to drive home their concerns. In general, speakers spoke positively about the current insurance coverage, with many saying they have been happy with the insurance as it stands currently. However, all were concerned about the changes leading to increased costs that they feel they and others cannot afford.

"I can assure you that these issues are not lost on us. We don't have all the answers yet, but we're here because the concerns of the graduate and professional student communities are important to us, because you are important to us," said Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost.

Some speakers expressed frustration that they are just hearing about these changes.

"I don't want the impression to be left that somehow we've known these numbers for a long time and were hiding them from you and your faculty advisers," said Jones. The provost said the administration learned of these numbers less than two weeks ago, and began working immediately on ways to "blunt the impact that we knew this was going to have on this population."

Jones assured those in attendance that the steps announced at the meeting signaled the starting point. "We've taken some steps. We know that there's more we need to do, and we're working on that," he said.
See also  Charles Thompson, Penn State's endowment shows strong growth in 2013, surges past $2 billion, Patriot News, ("The total value of the university’s Long Term Investment Pool - which also includes $1.081 billion reserved for employee post-retirement health benefits - jumped from $2.671 billion to $3.311 billion. The pool’s overall value was skewed up last year by the one-time addition of the health care reserves. Strong growth is a plus for Penn State because it permits the university to tap a portion of its investment income for current spending, even as the endowment's overall asset base continues to grow.").

Altogether, this suggests a conversation of sorts.  Yet is one in which people and institutions are speaking through each other.  And no one appears willing to listen.  This produces the form of engagement without substance--and the substitution of power politics for cooperation and discourse.  This will produce results certainly, not ones that may not be good for the long term best interests of the university and its stakeholders.  One can only hope that maturer heads prevail on all sides.

No comments:

Post a Comment