University of Minnesota graduate student Rachel Olzer needed jaw surgery and was told it was covered under her University health insurance. Last month, she found out that was no longer the case.
Panicking, she reached out to as many administrative offices she could think of. Not only was her surgery not covered, but some of the medications for her chronic illness were not on the coverage list either.
In March, the University's Office of Student Health Benefits announced it would change providers for its Graduate Assistant Health Plan, from Health Partners to Blue Cross Blue Shield. The office assured graduate students that health coverage and health benefit levels would not change. But many students say they have noticed increased prescription prices and differences in what medications are covered, among other discrepancies.
“This has been a complete nightmare for me, and I know there are other graduate students also having issues,” Olzer said.
More than 1,600 people signed a petition asking for compensation for students who have had to pay more as a result of the switch, a stronger say in issues relating to graduate student health care and overall transparency, among other demands. Students delivered the petition to President Joan Gabel's office on Oct. 10.
In May, the Minnesota Daily reported on the switch to BCBS. Then-OSHB Director Susann Jackson said students knew about the changes in coverage.
“We measure the disruption that our students might encounter, and we felt that would be minimal, very minimal — if at all,” Jackson told the Daily.
Because of questions surrounding her health insurance coverage, Olzer’s physician said if her jaw procedure was not authorized by Blue Cross she would have to reschedule the surgery for January – around the time she would be preparing to defend her dissertation. Less than a week before Olzer was supposed to have her jaw surgery, her procedure was authorized.
"Your health and well-being is important and critical to the University of Minnesota. The Office of Student Health Benefits (OSHB) is committed to upholding this value via comprehensive, cost-effective insurance plans. We appreciate feedback from students and ongoing partnership and coordination with student leaders," reads an email sent to graduate students from the OSHB on Oct. 9.
It is unclear how many students have been impacted by the switch from Heath Partners to Blue Cross. According to the OSHB, approximately 50 students have reached out to administration with “inquiries” about the new health insurance as of Wednesday.
“Of course it was really really terrifying … I wasn’t even sure I was going to have it,” Olzer said.
Students contend with with coverage changes
Shanta Hejmadi, a graduate student studying ecology, ran into issues when she found she was unable to access her 11-year-old daughter’s health insurance information online, something she said she was able to do under the previous plan and wants to have in case of a medical emergency. After reaching out to Blue Cross, she was told only her husband would have access to her daughter’s medical information. Although this is not a huge complication for Hejmadi, she said this could be a problem for some who are not on good terms with their co-parent.
“When you change insurance companies, there’s always hiccups and there’s always small changes,” Hejmadi said. “But when they say that nothing is changing, people think nothing is changing.”
Zosha Winegar-Schultz, who said she uses her insurance frequently, did not receive her insurance card until Oct. 2, a month after the plan started. Although she requested it multiple times, she missed appointments because some offices required a physical copy of the card. In addition, the prices of some of her medications and procedures increased — including a $95 charge for an acupuncture procedure, a fee she previously did not have to worry about.
Wineagar-Schultz said she felt blindsided by the changes and was not properly informed that her medication prices would change.
“This is countless hours at this point of labor and worrying from me and money spent ... For us to have to manage the transition [from Health Partners to Blue Cross] and to track down that information is really unacceptable,” Winneagar-Schultz said. “It’s unacceptable for the institution … to fail to communicate on this level.”
One group sparks conversation
On the morning of Oct. 10, a group of approximately 15 to 20 graduate students and other members of the University community hand-delivered a petition to President Joan Gabel’s office detailing GAHP concerns.
Crammed into a hallway near Gabel’s office in Morrill Hall, the group gathered around Siddhant Pusdekar, who read the petition aloud to a member of Gabel’s staff. Several students also shared their experiences with changes to the GAHP and how they say it is negatively impacting their wellbeing.
The petition expressed frustration with the lack of transparency, listing several demands for the University, including providing compensation for price changes and giving students more representation when making decisions about health care in the future.
Grads United also created an online public-coverage tracker, which as of Wednesday, has approximately 30 entries from students highlighting grievances.
Jennifer Nicklay, a graduate student who spoke at Gabel’s office, said she believes it is important that graduate students collectively work together to advocate for these issues.
“It can feel really lonely when suddenly you realize that a medication isn’t covered anymore,” Nicklay said. “It wasn’t until we started connecting with each other and using our networks that we realized, ‘Wow this is actually impacting a lot of people, and I’m not alone.’”
University says no changes, working with students
In response to student complaints, the OSHB released a statement addressing some questions from students, including answers on what medication is covered and why the insurance changed from Heath Partners to Blue Cross.
The plan design for Health Partners and Blue Cross are the same — both have the same deductible, inpatient- and outpatient-care coverage and copay tiers, according to Greg Thurston, director of the OSHB.
However, Thurston said many of the problems brought to the OSHB’s attention stem from the fact that Health Partners and Blue Cross have a different formulary — or a list of drugs covered by an insurance plan. An OSHB spokesperson said formulary changes are routine, even within a singular provider.
If someone finds that a medication they took is no longer covered, Thurston said the individual can switch to an equivalent medication covered by the Blue Cross plan. There is also a formulary exception a person can request to continue taking the same prescription for medical reasons, according to Thurston.
Many students expressed frustration that they need to take these extra steps for their coverage when they were told coverage levels and benefits would not change.
The statement from the OSHB also noted that price differences could be resulting because prescription out-of-pocket maximums were reset Sept. 1, when the plan officially switched to Blue Cross. Before the switch, if a person met the out-of-pocket maximum, they no longer had copays on their medication.
“If people have issues or feel anything needs to be addressed, they need to be contacting us, and we are glad to look at it,” Thurston said.
Students advocate for representation
Scott Lanyon, the vice provost and dean of Graduate Education at the University, said access to health care is an issue that has an impact on graduate students.
“All education, especially graduate education, is pretty stressful,” Lanyon said. “The thought of losing health care or having questions about health care is adding to an already stressful situation, and we would certainly like to avoid that.”
Olzer said going forward, she hopes the the OSHB will continue to work with graduate students to address the situation.
“I would like for the University and whoever ... made these decisions to ... sit down again with Blue Cross Blue Shield and figure out where there are changes, and really close those holes and gaps [in coverage] that have arisen.” Olzer said. “There needs to be much more input from graduate students in the future.”