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Graduate students request dental coverage

| Monday, April 13, 2015

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The Office of Student Affairs will hold a public meeting Tuesday to discuss the possibility of reinstating a dental insurance plan for graduate students, in response to a student petition on the issue.

The petition, submitted in January, asked the University to reinstate dental coverage after Aetna, the company that provides student health insurance through Notre Dame, removed the option of a dental plan for graduate students after the 2012-2013 academic year and replaced it with a discount card.

All Notre Dame graduate students are required to have health insurance, and students are automatically enrolled in a school-sponsored insurance program unless they opt out, according to the University Health Services website. But to receive dental coverage specifically, students had to sign up and pay a separate fee, according to Sean Phillips, the health chair of the Graduate Student Union (GSU).

Phillips said Aetna dropped the option for dental coverage in 2013 due to low enrollment.

“A lot of students just didn’t pay into it, and just as any insurance mathematically works, if you don’t have people paying into the program, it doesn’t become viable,” he said. “On top of that, the benefits of the program weren’t necessarily what students were looking for.”

Bry Martin, president of the Union of Graduate Historians (UGH), said he created the petition after seeing a discussion on the organization’s Facebook group about the lack of dental coverage. He said the purpose of the petition was to show that students are interested in a dental plan.

“It just seemed like I was hearing back from a number of students that said they wanted [a dental plan], and at that point it just didn’t ring true to me that there wasn’t demand,” Martin said.

The online petition, which was signed by 133 students, argues that low enrollment “reflected not apathy, but lack of awareness.” The petition asks the University to reinstate an optional dental plan through Aetna or another company and suggests University Health Services (UHS), UGH and graduate programs work together to inform students about such a plan.

After the petition was submitted to the University in January, the Office of Student Affairs, which oversees UHS, convened a working group to review options for the reinstatement of a dental plan. The group will submit a recommendation to the University Provost Tom Burish and Vice President of Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann-Harding.

University officials are unavailable for comment until after Tuesday’s meeting.

Instead of a full dental insurance plan, Aetna currently offers a discount card for teeth cleanings and other services. According to a brochure for the program, the card costs $25 and generally covers 15 to 50 percent of the cost of dental services, depending on the type of service and the provider. Martin said the card is not enough for students who need dental care beyond cleanings.

“Students end up having actual health issues with their teeth, and the current dental plan will shave off a little bit of the cost, but it isn’t a true insurance policy,” he said.

Adam Duker, a history Ph.D. candidate, said he found out the dental plan had been dropped when he tried to renew his insurance ahead of a scheduled wisdom teeth removal.

“At the end of the day I had to pay $2,500 out of pocket to have my wisdom teeth removed,” Duker said. “At the time, the graduate stipends were $18,500. Now they’re a little more. But that means that you’re paying 12 percent of your yearly salary for a simple dental procedure that up until then had been completely covered or largely covered by the dental plan, which neither the University nor Aetna provided us any notice whatsoever that it was being dropped.”

Duker said he tried to advocate for a reinstated plan through the GSU over the next two years, and he participated in the discussion on the UGH Facebook page that led to the petition.

“We’re asking for a plan that we will pay for, that won’t cost the University anything, to organize as a group, to share risk,” Duker said. ” … openly, what we’re really asking is that our teeth don’t fall out of our heads over a period of [5 to 9] years of graduate school,” he said.

The petition suggests Columbia University as an example of a workable dental insurance plan. Columbia’s optional student dental plan, which is also offered through Aetna, has an annual premium of $296 for a single student and a copay of $5 for most basic services, according to Aetna’s website.

“Columbia to me was the case study of somebody who has a similar — in fact, the exact same insurance provider and yet has these benefits,” Martin said. “It goes to show, this could be done and is done.”

Martin said the goal of the petition is to get the University to explore options for providing dental insurance.

“This is something that is ultimately going to be on the graduate students’ shoulders,” Martin said. “If they want this sort of optional dental insurance plan, they’re going to have to sign up for it, and if that doesn’t happen, then the plan will fail and it’ll go back to the current position. … Part of it is getting word out to them so they can make that decision, and if they decide that that’s not working for them, that’s fine.”

The public meeting will take place Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the 3rd floor conference room of St. Liam Hall.

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

Contact Emily