Health insurance is a make-or-break expense for LSU graduate students

After a bicycle accident, Suman Gunin never regained full range of motion of his arm and still suffers from pain.

A graduate student from India studying neuroscience at LSU, he cannot afford the recommended physical therapy with the $15,000 annual stipend he receives for his teaching and research duties. Gunin paid more than $300 for initial post-crash visits and is eagerly awaiting bills for his x-rays and care.

LSU graduate students receive a minimum stipend of approximately $11,000 to sustain themselves for the year, although some lucky ones earn as much as $27,000. After fees and living expenses, many have little to pay for health care, which the university, unlike many top research institutions, does not provide.

These doctoral or masters students spend about half of their working hours teaching undergraduate courses, assisting with research, and handling administrative tasks.

After mandatory tuition of up to $2,000 per semester, graduate assistants plan carefully to afford rent and food. Corresponding Rent a coffee shopthe average rent in Baton Rouge is $1,169 for a one-bedroom apartment.

By the time college grads are considering purchasing health insurance in the private market, the $3,000 that LSU’s student health insurance plan costs has long been earmarked for more pressing needs like room, board, and transportation.

International students must have health insurance. For financial reasons, many opt for international student plans, which cost in between $31 to $75 per month. Students say the plans cover very little of their medical expenses.

Depending on the department, LSU research assistants are prohibited—or at least strongly discouraged—from working outside of the department. International graduate students are prohibited by law from working outside or risk violating their visa, which could result in deportation or imprisonment.

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Some international students rely on healthcare from their home countries.

Daleth Del Salto, an international student doing her PhD in biology at LSU, was forced to have medication shipped from abroad after she was told her prescription wasn’t valid in the United States. Her alternative was re-diagnosis, a multi-appointment procedure that she said she could not afford. Del Salto did not disclose her medical condition.

Domestic students face similar problems.

Adam Dohrenwend, a geography assistant, said he couldn’t afford $1,000 to have his wisdom teeth removed on his $15,000 grant. A first-generation college graduate, he raised concerns at an LSU town hall meeting on the matter about the lack of affordable graduate health care that keeps the working class away from higher education.

“Education isn’t just for people with money and people whose parents have money, for people whose parents wear suits to work, is it?” Dohrenwend said. “Students whose families … get their hands dirty … first-generation, lower-working-class students should be able to get an education.”

Victoria Rittell, a chemistry graduate student, said she constantly racks up medical bills for her chronic health issues and currently has about $3,000 in outstanding medical debt. She receives a $25,000 stipend, a higher amount than most assistants.

“If I added one more bill, I don’t know if I would be able to pay my medical bills,” Rittell said.

Rittell compared her experience to that of her boyfriend, a research associate at the University of Tennessee, where his insurance even covers off-campus specialists.

Graduate assistants campaigning for better health care emphasize that this is a work problem, not just a student problem. They are considered an important part of the university staff. LSU busy 1,298 research assistants in 2020, the latest available data. In addition to a full-time faculty count of 1,653 as of 2021, research assistants make up 44% of the university’s academic workforce.

While graduate assistants pay $3,000 for an individual healthcare plan, full-time faculty members pay around $2,400 in bonuses. As of 2019, the most recent data available, the average LSU faculty salary was $92,875.

The unequal treatment frustrates many university graduates.

“I’m an employee if you feel I should be an employee,” said Rebecca Bock, a doctor of sociology, at City Hall. “I’m not offered any benefits and then I’m told I can’t go out and get a job that would get me benefits. So here I am, trying to figure out if I can afford services that will allow me to be a productive faculty member or a productive student, depending on how you all want to define me.”

Despite being told not to work outside of their departments, some graduate students take additional jobs to receive health care and help with expenses. Some have expressed that had they known the financial realities of working and studying at LSU, they would have gone elsewhere.

Bock said she’s even considering transferring to Loyola University in New Orleans or just getting a master’s degree and her Ph.D. later.

“Unless LSU does something impressive in the near future, that seems like the better option,” Bock said.

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LSU Administrators Discuss Graduate Compensation Changes. LSU Provost Roy Haggerty and Vice Provost for Graduate Studies James Spencer sent a memo to faculty and graduate students in October expressing their support for raising the university’s minimum postgraduate scholarship to $23,000.

Spencer told City Hall students he advocated an exemption from health insurance for graduate assistants, which would cover much of the medical expenses of graduate assistants.

“That’s essentially what a lot of these SEC entities are doing, which is they’re saying we’re going to pay for the health insurance and you’re never going to see a bill,” Spencer said.

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