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International students protesting potential insurance changes

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1-11-17 International Student

Sanjeev Joshi, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, sits outside the University bookstore on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Joshi created a petition to change the University's health insurance policy. 

Neepa Kuruppu Arachchige, like hundreds of international students, stared at her screen in shock as the cost of her insurance suddenly skyrocketed in late November.

Because of a proposed change to the University’s health insurance requirements, Arachchige’s private insurance options under her current provider, ISO Insurance, were reduced down to a single plan. The premium for this plan, just over $1,000 per semester, was in stark contrast to the roughly $240 per semester she was accustomed to paying, she said.

Given her modest financial stipend as a teaching assistant, the chemistry Ph.D. candidate was distraught over the new policy’s blow to her financial stability. For the healthy 28-year-old, paying more than three times her usual rate for an expanded health insurance plan seemed unrealistic, she said.

Arachchige felt painted into a corner.

She, like many international students, sought out private insurance as an affordable alternative to the University’s more expensive plan. Though the University’s expanded plan provided great coverage, Arachchige said she didn’t want to pay for something she likely wouldn’t use.

When the changes were implemented, Arachchige realized she may be forced to. In response to the University’s amended coverage requirements, private insurance providers, like ISO Insurance, increased premiums and reduced policy options to meet the University’s new standards.

Instead of being an affordable alternative, the private plans were now as expensive as the University’s policy, she said.

“It’s like there are no options,” Arachchige said. “LSU is forcing us to get whatever they offer.”

For some students, the choice was even more pointed.

Sanjeev Joshi, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, said his insurance policy through Insurance for Students would have been voided under the expanded coverage requirements. Suddenly left without insurance, Joshi would have been forced to either scramble for a new policy or purchase care through the University.

Joshi decided to speak out and started a petition through Change.org calling on University administrators to rescind the changes. To date, the petition has over 640 signatures.

Many others, Joshi and Arachchige included, spoke with Graduate School Dean Michelle Massé and Provost Richard Koubek about their concerns and opposition to the policy change.

Massé said her meeting with the students was the first time the policy change’s implementation had been brought to her attention, and she was alarmed by the University’s poor communication. Massé served on the University committee responsible for the policy suggestions, but was not involved in the implementation.

Matt Lee, vice provost of Academic Programs and Support Services, said the University’s administrative units were notified of the policy requirements in August, at which time the information was expected to be promulgated to students.

Massé said she’s uncertain where the slip-up in communication occurred, but that unfortunately administrators can lose sight of the humans affected when paperwork changes are involved.

Once aware of the situation, Koubek and President F. King Alexander worked swiftly to protect the students, Massé said.

The policy change has been rolled back for the spring, and international students have been allowed to maintain their current policies for the time being. Future changes are likely inevitable, Massé said, but administrators are working to reconcile the needs of graduate students while ensuring minimum insurance requirements are met.

In the past, the University has allowed students to purchase subpar plans that did not meet minimum international student requirements in order to minimize their personal expenses, she said. This has worked for many students, but in the case of an unforeseen medical emergency, students would be left liable for the fees their policies did not cover.

It’s unconscionable to leave students vulnerable, Massé said.

“If suddenly you have appendicitis, a detached retina, a problem pregnancy and you have a policy that will leave you on the hook for $7,000 or $8,000, then all of a sudden you realize that your policy that was a great savings is no savings at all,” Massé said.

Massé, Lee and other key administrators will be meeting throughout the spring semester to explore the best possible options for the University’s insurance requirements and potential alternatives. She said they may consider identifying private policies that meet the minimum international criteria, among other options.

Regardless of the changes that are ultimately made, Massé said effective and timely communication of the University’s intentions and the potential cost to students will be crucial for students to plan and appropriately budget. Ensuring graduate students are kept abreast of changes and involved in the conversation is a top priority, Massé said.

She said it’ll likely take time to establish a policy everyone can agree on. Until then, it’s crucial that concerned students continue to speak up.

“We’re going to need those groups of students who are concerned to continue to articulate those concerns, and to remind us that these are adults who have to pay their rent, buy their groceries, but who also must have health insurance,” she said.

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