Graduate assistants at the University of Memphis say that they aren’t getting paid enough for the work that they do, but to some, the money isn’t the most important thing.
For those students, all they want is decent health insurance.
“Even if they didn’t raise my pay, if I could get some health insurance, I’d be happy,” said Tori Horn, a graduate teaching and research assistant in the university’s psychology department.
Horn said that her finance whom she lives with is the only reason that she is able to live off of the stipend that she receives from the department.
Having received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at two other institutions before coming to the University of Memphis, this is the third school that she has attended, yet it’s the first one that doesn’t offer student health insurance.
She didn’t take advantage of the plans back then, but only because she was young enough to still be covered under her parent’s insurance plan.
Now that she’s older, having good health insurance is more important to her than ever, even more so than making a living wage from her assistantship.
Erica Kessler, another graduate teaching and research assistant in the psychology department, said that being a graduate assistant means that it often feels like you work double or triple what you are paid for.
She expected as much when she signed her contract, however.
“It kind of tends to come with the territory,” she said.
But just like Horn, having good health insurance is more important to her, even than getting a raise.
“There’s a dire need for a better health care system for graduate assistants,” she said.
Better is the key word for graduate assistants at the University of Memphis. Although they are offered something, it isn’t actual insurance. What they get is the MEMPHIS Plan from Church Health, a local organization based out of Crosstown Concourse.
But Kessler, as well as other graduate assistants, takes issue with the plan.
Part of the way that it works is by assigning those under it one specific primary care physician as well as one specific hospital that they can use.
They must go where they are assigned or risk not having their services covered.
For Kessler, who is now covered under her husband’s health insurance, this meant that she was also assigned one specific pharmacy that she could purchase from.
She recalled trying to get birth control while still under the plan and feeling like it wasn’t even worth the effort because she was that uncomfortable going to where she was assigned.
“The area they were trying to send me to, I mean, quite frankly, it was unsafe,” she said.
Surprisingly, these students’ wishes run counter to what one expert says is “simple, basic human behavior in economics”.
Dr. Albert Okunade is a professor in the university’s economics department whose research work includes healthcare economics and non-profit higher education financing among other subjects.
His assumption was that graduate students usually want more money than they would greater benefits simply because of the flexibility that higher wages offer.
Basically, in his mind, if they received a raise instead of being offered a health insurance plan, they could choose how much or how little they want to put toward health insurance instead of being forced to pay a certain amount under a university-sponsored plan.
But he agreed with Zachary Easley, a graduate teaching assistant in the university’s math department, that offering a health insurance plan for graduate assistants might be an easier sell for the administration than giving them a raise.
“I think that more graduate assistants want to be paid cash than benefits, although benefits are cheaper for the university because they can buy in large scale,” he said.
Cheaper doesn’t mean free, though, and right now it appears that the university simply can’t afford to offer a plan to graduate assistants.
Raaj Kurapati, CFO for the university, previously said in email statement to the Daily Helmsman that several options to offer a proper health insurance plan to graduate assistants have been looked at but that they were always too expensive.
“Just because we made R1 does not mean that we suddenly have an infinite amount of financial resources at our disposal. The university has explored several options to provide health insurance coverage to our graduate assistants. Unfortunately, all have been cost prohibitive. We remain committed to supporting all our colleagues and will continue to look for avenues on this front,” he said.
Easley, however, questioned his response.
“Do we not have the money for it or do we just not want to take the time to figure out how to get the money for it?” he said.
Okunade said graduate assistants shouldn't fret just because they don't get health insurance from the university.
“Graduate students have options outside of the university,” he said.
He recommended looking at plans from Aetna, Signa, Everest, IMG or even Medicaid for students that qualify. // Photo: University of Memphis
Zachary Easley said that because the university does not offer health insurance to graduate assistants, it risks not being competitive with other institutions that do.
“That knowledge [that other schools offer it] has taken a toll on some students,” he said. // Photo: University of Memphis