Last summer, over 1,000 students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were notified that they would face higher co-pays and less coverage under NYU’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan. They were told by multiple administrators that the New York State Department of Financial Services required it.
However, according to a spokesperson at the Department of Financial Services, this is untrue and the decision to consolidate the plans was made exclusively by NYU and its health insurance company.
Before the consolidation, fully-funded graduate students in GSAS under the Henry M. MacCracken program had access to the Graduate Student Health Insurance Plan, with access being offered to their dependents — including children and spouses — at a subsidized rate. On June 20, Executive Director of the Student Health Center Dr. Carlo Ciotoli and Dean of GSAS Phillip Harper sent out similar emails notifying these students that beginning in fall 2018, GSHIP would be consolidated with one of NYU’s other student health insurance offerings, called the Comprehensive Plan.
“The New York State Department of Financial Services has required NYU to consolidate two of its student health insurance plans — the Graduate Student Health Insurance Plan, or GSHIP (in which you are enrolled, and which serves only fully-funded graduate students) and the much larger Comprehensive plan — into a single plan,” the email reads.
The changes would result in a $10 increase in co-pays, as well as 90 instead of 100 percent coverage of certain tests, including X-rays and durable medical devices at the Student Health Center.
Five days after being notified, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee, which is a union for graduate workers including teaching, research and graduate assistants, filed a grievance with human resources alleging that the consolidation violated their 2015 contract with the university. Under Article XIX of their contract, employees’ conditions of employment are to remain the same until the contract expires Aug. 1, 2020.
“No provision of this Agreement shall be construed as to lower the compensation rate of any graduate employee,” the contract reads. “Graduate employees receiving wages and conditions of employment higher or better than specifically provided for herein shall continue to receive same throughout the period of this Agreement.”
On July 17, graduate students provided testimonies as part of the grievance process and presented an open letter signed by graduate students opposing the changes. However, NYU rejected the grievance under the premise that since the health insurance plan is offered not only to employed graduate students but also those who do not work, it does not fall under the contract made with GSOC.
“NYU’s commitment to paying the health plan premiums is a function of the students’ status as fully-funded graduate students, not a function of their being graduate student workers,” university spokesperson John Beckman wrote in an email to WSN. “This is made clear to students in their acceptance letters, and it is amply demonstrated by the fact that their premiums continue to be paid even in semesters when they are NOT working as GAs or TAs.”
GSOC responded by filing for arbitration, a process by which a mutually agreed upon third-party would make a ruling on the dispute. The arbitration occurred on Jan. 16, when lawyers from both sides presented their arguments. A decision will not be made until at least two months later, as the arbitrator continues to receive briefs from lawyers representing both parties.
“We’re seeking a restoration of the plan and compensation to anyone who had higher costs as a result of this change,” steward in GSOC and co-chair of the organizing committee Caroline Bowman wrote in an email to WSN.
NYU will seek the dismissal of the claims against them.
Bowman, who was present during the arbitration, said Ciotoli reiterated his previous claim that the New York State Department of Financial Services required NYU to consolidate its health insurance plans.
When GSOC sent out an information request to find out why the university was required to consolidate the insurance plans, they were denied. Patrick Shepherd, a representative for the United Auto Workers — with which GSOC is affiliated — sent the initial request, and the university responded with an email saying the request was “based on an incorrect premise that the GSHIP student health insurance plan is tied to employment” and “seeks information that is beyond the scope of the collective bargaining agreement.”
It then referred GSOC to a portion of the Student Health Center website which also cites the Department of Financial Services regulation as the reason for the consolidation.
“The former GSHIP plan has been eliminated to comply with the New York State Department of Financial Services regulatory oversight,” the website reads.
This aligns with a statement NYU Spokesperson John Beckman provided to WSN.
“All insurance plans in [New York State], even our student insurance plans, are reviewed by the State, and the State indicated to the University that it had concerns about NYU continuing to offer GSHIP,” the statement reads.
These repeated claims directly contradict the information WSN received from a spokesperson at the Department of Financial Services.
“DFS did not require NYU to consolidate the plans. The decision was made by NYU and its insurance company,” the spokesperson said. “Our role is just to make sure that the rates being charged reflect the benefits provided.”
No matter the reason for the changes, graduate student and Senator at-Large for LGBTQ and graduate students Christopher VanDemark said he was more angered at the lack of consultation with student groups.
“We were blindsided by these changes, and that’s unacceptable,” VanDemark said. “Because there are student groups — not just student groups, but students themselves that are going to be impacted by these changes.”
VanDemark will present a letter of support to the Student Senators Council on Thursday, criticizing the university for their lack of communication and hopes for a favorable result for GSOC in the arbitration process.
Bowman said the most important issue is that the changes made to the plan would negatively affect many graduate students’ quality of life.
“These increases can definitely add up for graduate students and their dependents, especially when we’re not making a lot of money living in New York City,” Bowman said. “These changes can have a huge effect.”
Although just over 1,000 students may have been using GSHIP, it was offered at a subsidized rate to their family members, increasing the number of people affected by the consolidation.
“[Doctoral students], more often than undergrads and masters, have families,” VanDemark said. “We’re a group of students more likely to have dependents, to have spouses. To rely on not only our healthcare but our income as well to make ends meet. We have salaries but they’re meager. We are often overworked and underpaid for that matter.”
VanDemark said his complaints against the university would remain the same even if NYU were not required to consolidate the plans — saying that the lack of consultation regarding a policy that affects students was his main issue with the process.
Still, through multiple emails, the Student Health website, statements made during arbitration and a statement by a university spokesperson, NYU has repeatedly asserted that the Department of Financial Services required them to consolidate their health insurance plans. They have continually made this claim which, according to a spokesperson in that same department, is false.
When asked to respond to this discrepancy in information, the university said they would not have a statement in time for publication, and that they would “look into it.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, print edition. This is a developing story; if you are a graduate student affected by the consolidation of health insurance plans, email Victor Porcelli at [email protected].