Thursday, March 13, 2008


CUNY Grad Students Deserve the Same Health Insurance as SUNY Grad Students.

With the Democratic campaigns focusing on the subtle differences between Senator Clinton’s platform of mandatory (but “affordable”) health insurance for all and Senator Obama’s platform of mandatory insurance for children and “affordable” insurance for all, the language used in their debates reminds me so much of our own struggle as CUNY graduate students for adequate and affordable health insurance.

In addition to being a graduate student in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and an adjunct in History at Hunter College, I also work at the GC as a part-time student administrator in the Office of Student Affairs, helping my fellow graduate students determine whether or not they are eligible for Healthy NY or Family Health Plus, the New Yotk State public health insurance programs, or if they can afford (or should bother to buy) the GHI or NAGPS student insurance plans. The irony of my employment is that even though I hold two jobs at CUNY, one of which is as a health insurance advocate, I myself remain under-insured because all I can afford is a basic hospitalization policy.

Because of my job in Student Affairs, people often ask me why CUNY students enroll in public health insurance programs — many times these people are faculty, GC staff, or new, unsuspecting graduate students. They are shocked when I tell them that CUNY does not offer its undergraduate or graduate students mandatory, affordable, or even adequate health insurance. The real kicker is that for some reason, the other university system in our state, SUNY, does offer comprehensive, affordable, and mandatory coverage to its graduate students. The annual premium for individuals at SUNY is $114.96 and for families is $996.72 (http://www.sunysb.edu/hr/benefits/state/student_premiums.shtml). Compared to the GHI insurance offered to CUNY Students, which costs $2,396.76 per year for individuals and $6,830.88 for families — we are getting a raw deal. Many students cannot afford GHI, and many others find it grossly inadequate. SUNY students get vision, dental, and prescription drugs; CUNY students do not. The NAGPS insurance offered by CUNY is priced by age; many students over 35 cannot afford it and many others find the reimbursements to be inadequate and difficult to obtain.

This disparity is outrageous. I am saddened that the options available to CUNY graduate students (many of whom are employees of the State of New York through the CUNY system) are inadequate and generally unaffordable. I encourage everyone to follow President Kelly’s email request and go to www.supportcuny.org to encourage legislators to treat CUNY students with more equity. Hopefully a decision will be made to include CUNY students in the SUNY program — an obvious solution to a serious disparity.

In the mean time, CUNY graduate students are left with the decision between inadequate and over-priced student health insurance (GHI or NAGPS) and the NY state public programs. While I know that Albany must be thrilled to hear that some CUNY students are taking advantage of Healthy NY or Family Health Plus, I can tell you that most can’t afford or don’t qualify for one of the two programs offered. In my experience, CUNY graduate students with fellowships receive stipends of between roughly $13,000 and $20,000/year, which is only slightly higher than the requirements to qualify for the free state plan, Family Health Plus, and yet not enough to afford the approximately $2,772/year for the individual standard Empire BlueCross Plan with prescription drug coverage through Healthy NY. Additionally, there are many students who elect to sign their children up for the Child Health Plus public insurance, while they themselves, as parents, remain uninsured or under-insured because of the prohibitive costs of NY state public health insurance and CUNY student insurance. Asking CUNY students to rely on NY state public insurance is irresponsible; most don’t qualify or can’t afford it.

Many students at the CUNY Graduate Center serve either as adjunct lecturers at the other CUNY colleges or as administrators in the various CUNY offices, or both (like me). We are poorly paid in both salary and benefits, while Albany saves money by not having to exclusively employ full-time, competitively salaried professors and administrators (after all, why buy the cow when you can get the milk at a discount?). While the Professional Staff Congress union offers some adjuncts health insurance (after two semesters of service), the graduate students teaching as part of CUNY (state-funded) fellowship packages are excluded from this benefit while they perform the same tasks as those who are paid as adjuncts and receive benefits from the PSC.

The issue of “affordability” that has arisen in the Democratic nomination debates touches a raw nerve with me every day in the Office of Student Affairs as I explain the limited health insurance options to countless, disappointed graduate students. If Senator Clinton thinks that her own state’s Healthy NY program is “affordable” — she’s mistaken. I haven’t seen any figures from Senator Obama gauging what “affordable” means to him, but I hope whomever wins the nomination will consider the fact that anything over $50/month is NOT affordable for those on limited incomes. If Clinton thinks that Healthy NY is affordable and CUNY thinks that GHI is affordable — they both are wrong. SUNY’s insurance for graduate students is affordable and should serve as a model for CUNY.

Everyone in the GC community should follow President Kelly’s advice and lobby Albany to include CUNY in the SUNY program, or offer a comparable benefit to CUNY graduate students. While this would not solve the issue of health insurance for CUNY undergraduates, at least it would be a start.

PS: I welcome any GC student who needs help wading through the sea of underwhelming health insurance options to contact me at the Office of Student Affairs: (212) 817-7408 or ezitani@gc.cuny.edu. Until adequate, affordable insurance is offered, we can sit down together to weigh the differences of the public and student options so that you can make an informed decision that will best serve your and your family’s needs. You can also evaluate your options at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/current_students/StudentHealth/index.htm#C.

Ellen Zitani is a Doctoral Student of History, CUNY Graduate Center, an Adjunct Professor of History at Hunter College, and the Graduate Student Administrator for the CUNY Graduate Center Office of Student Affairs. The opinions in this essay are the opinions of the author and do not represent those of the City University of New York or the Office of Student Affairs at the CUNY Graduate Center.

If you are an international student in the Midwest Region and your health insurance is higher than the one offered by SUNY please let me know.

Gerald Baraza
International Students Coordinator,
Email: barazage@gvsu.edu

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