Illustration by Olivia Juenger

Illustration by Olivia Juenger

October 29, 2020

The Health Insurance Problem

Graduate students at OU struggle to negotiate health insurance policies

By Grant Ritchey | For The Post

W hen Habiba Abdelaal arrived at Ohio University in the summer of 2017, worrying about health insurance didn’t cross her mind. Abdelaal was enjoying what the city of Athens had to offer — food, nightlife and new friends. She believed in the American dream and had dabbled in the idea of staying in America after getting her master’s degree in engineering.

Now in 2020, she wants to leave on the first flight back to Egypt as soon as her diploma touches her fingertips.

“I feel like here, I am nothing.”—Habiba Abdelaal

“I feel like here, I am nothing,” Abdelaal said.

For Abdelaal, a $990 health insurance bill, paid in four installments throughout the semester — along with school fees, rent and utility bills — was starting to add up. Then, she received an email from the university in August of 2019, stating the unbelievable: Health insurance costs were rising to $1,410 a semester.

“How the hell are we going to pay for this?” Abdelaal said.

When she applied for her visa, Abdelaal had to provide bank statements, so the U.S. knew she could afford to live in Athens. Ohio University, however, wasn’t like the U.S. government.

“We didn’t sign up for this,” Abdelaal said.

In 2016, the cost of health insurance provided by UnitedHealthcare was approximately $990 per semester after subsidies, according to a previous Post report. The cost has since increased over 29%, making the payments $1,410 in 2020. The university also requires every international student, like Abdelaal, to have Emergency Medical Evacuation & Repatriation, which costs an extra $90 for an academic year.

“The current insurance options available to students through Ohio University were recommended by the Student Health Insurance Policy Advisory Committee, which includes students and administrators,” OU media relations manager Jim Sabin said in an email. “The committee met last year to review options in an effort to maintain premiums as close as possible to last year's. Premiums are determined based on claims utilization, plan design and payable benefits.”

Abdelaal knew the UnitedHealthcare plan was set in stone but hoped there could be alternative health care plans for her to choose from. What she and other students found, however, was a list of criteria that needs to be filled for the university to accept another health care plan.

“Students who do not wish to purchase the student health insurance have the option to waive the student health insurance by submitting their alternate health insurance information,” Sabin said in an email. “This applies to both international and domestic students.”

Options for students who are not on their parents’ health care plan include the state marketplace or through a private broker, Sabin said. Sabin said many students qualify for Medicaid or a government subsidy for a marketplace plan based on their income.

Health care can’t change in a day, weeks or months, Abdelaal said. It takes countless hours of meetings with board members and meetings with health care officials — negotiating prices, premiums, stipends, what gets covered and what doesn’t.

When health care literacy understanding is a setback for a majority of Americans, according to a survey from Policygenius, the barrier for international students is an even greater setback.

“Some domestic students don’t understand it,” Abdelaal said. “Imagine we’re coming from different countries from different languages, and you’re giving us 40 pages to read and to understand those medical terms and subsidies … that we don’t understand, honestly.”

Illustration by Olivia Juenger

Abdelaal’s frustrations don’t end at the costs. She has reservations about how the insurance plan is fanned out throughout the school year and into the summer. The UnitedHealthcare insurance plan is included throughout summer, where Abdelaal and many other students are not at the university. Either on a vacation or visiting home, they are still on the university’s health insurance plan.

“I have to pay health insurance in the United States when I’m not in the United States,” Abdelaal said. “That could save us about $500 per semester.”

Abdelaal knew her bills weren’t going to go away. Her rent, electricity, water, trash and gas for her beige Toyota Camry was still piling up. As a master’s student, Abdelaal works in an apprenticeship through the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, where she makes approximately $1,400 a month. But she is only allowed to work 20 hours a week, due to federal law, according to a previous Post report.

Throughout all the confusion and anxiety Abdelaal was enduring, she found a way to change her situation — joining Graduate Student Senate. That would allow her to be a part of her university and community. She could talk with university officials, other graduate student senators and everyday students who walk the streets of Athens. Now, she is the mental health affairs commissioner for the academic year of 2020-2021.

She also became a part of the Health Insurance Committee, where graduate student senators would try to find ways of lowering the price or changing the health insurance system at OU.

“I joined the GSS just to advocate for the health insurance,” Abdelaal said.

Graduate student executive members like President Kaelyn Ferris and Vice President Amal Shimir have been working on solutions to help either spread out the health insurance payment plan or reduce health insurance fees, according to a previous Post report. The Office of the Bursar has declined some of their plans.

On March 4, the Health Insurance Committee found that the national inflation rate is “not as high as (the university’s) increase” in health insurance pricing. The US Health Care Inflation Rate was at 4.48%, compared to 4.57% last month and 1.90% last year. That was lower than the long term average of 5.28%. As of October, the inflation rate is at 4.20%.

One of the committee's demands was a problem Abdelaal also had with her health insurance plan: summer payments.

“Allow us to have the option of paying for summer health insurance or waive it because that will save us $470 per semester and Save us $117.50 dollars per month” was a demand made in a GSS meeting agenda obtained by The Post.

Ferris and other GSS members found that OU subsidizes only 10% of the total health insurance cost, with the rest being covered out of pocket, according to GSS records. The data also shows that peer institutions average between 70-80% subsidy of their graduate student health insurance. The Health Insurance Committee demands a subsidize increase of 12-70%, according to that agenda.

Illustration by Olivia Juenger

On Feb. 19, Mary Magdalene Chumbow and Suleyman Gurbanov, both media arts Ph.D. students, and other international graduate students attended a general body Student Senate meeting to voice their concerns about the increase. University officials gave a presentation about the updated health care plan provided by UnitedHealthcare.

When the students entered Room 235 of Walter Hall, they only had one wish — to be heard. Chumbow felt like she was being exploited by the university, and she was ready for change.

Gurbanov was right beside Chumbow at the Student Senate meeting, sharing similar concerns about the increase of health insurance. Gurbanov said he is tired of talking about the health insurance fiasco; he just wants answers from the university.

“We wanted to be heard. Everybody was angry. Everybody was feeling used and exploited.”—Mary Magdalene Chumbow, Media Arts Ph.D. student

“We wanted to be heard,” Chumbow said. “Everybody was angry. Everybody was feeling used and exploited.”

Sabin said OU does not profit from its health care policies with students.

“Ohio University remains committed to helping students in need however possible,” Sabin said in an email. “The Bobcats Helping Bobcats program was set up to ensure that those in need had access to additional resources, including emergency microgrants, housing assistance, Cats Cupboard, and more.”

Whether a student comes from Egypt or Cameroon, graduate students want to see a change in health care policy.

“Even if I’m leaving, I don’t care,” Abdelaal said. “I care about the students who are coming to Athens.”

AUTHOR: Grant Ritchey
EDITOR: Shelby Campbell
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger
ILLUSTRATION: Olivia Juenger