HUHS Switch Means Higher Healthcare Costs For Some

UHS
Harvard University Health Services provides medical care to University affiliates.
UPDATED: August 31, 2017 at 12:22 p.m.

Blue Cross Blue Shield now covers pharmaceutical costs for students enrolled in Harvard’s health care plan, a change that will be more expensive for some students.

On July 28, students enrolled in Harvard’s health plan received an email from Harvard University Health Services advising students that they might pay different fees under the new company. The shift has drawn criticism from some graduate students.

According to University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga, HUHS switched to Blue Cross Blue Shield because that company already oversaw students’ primary care. The University decided to put the pharmacy component of the health plan under the same company’s control in an effort to better integrate coverage.

The new health coverage has resulted in price changes for some drugs. Blue Cross Blue Shield classifies certain drugs differently than Harvard’s old provider, meaning that some drugs will be more expensive under the new plan while others will be cheaper. deLuzuriaga said that 93 percent of prescriptions would cost the same or be cheaper under the new plan.

“Most members will not experience a difference in how their prescription drug medications are covered; however, some members may experience a change in co-payment or coverage for certain medications,” the email reads.

Some students said they were frustrated by the price increase.

“I was very surprised recently to discover that the cost of my dependent health care had gone up by $400 a semester,” said Scott Collier, a Ph.D. candidate involved in graduate unionization efforts. “This represents a highly non-trivial and unexpected increase in cost.”

Collier and other graduate students criticized a statement Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng made last semester promising, “there will be no reductions to any current student benefits, including health insurance.” GSAS has faced financial difficulties after negative endowment returns last fiscal year.

“The cost of these particular prescription medications had nearly doubled in cost,” said Jake Gable, a Ph.D. candidate. “It feels like this is a change in our benefits.”

In an email, GSAS spokesperson Ann Hall wrote, “GSAS continues to cover 100% of the HUHS Student Health Fee (SHF) and the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) for PhD students receiving financial aid.”

In response to changes to the health plan, Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers sent a letter to GSAS deans.

In the letter, union organizers and supporters criticized GSAS for the price increases, arguing that these price increases are particularly taxing given the smaller than usual increase in student stipends for the 2017-2018 academic year. In the spring of 2017, Dean Meng announced that graduate students’ stipends would increase by 1.5 percent, compared to the usual 3 percent.

“The university continues to make harmful changes to our wages and benefits with no input from students and with little notice to the students who are affected by these significant changes,” they wrote. “These increases in healthcare costs represent a sizable reduction in benefits for many students, which Dean Meng specifically claimed would not occur in his email of March 29. We urge you to keep Dean Meng’s word.”

In a statement, deLuzuriaga wrote that some students were consulted before HUHS changed the health care plan.

“Health plan benefit changes are vetted through the Student Health Planning Committee, which includes students, staff, and policy experts from across the University,” she wrote.

The union’s criticism of health plan changes comes as the University and HGSU-UAW await an NLRB decision about student unionization at Harvard. After a National Labor Relations Board official ruled that a 2016 unionization election—which initially showed that students voted against unionizing—should be invalidated, Harvard appealed to the national NLRB in Washington, D.C. If the board rejects Harvard’s appeal, undergraduate teaching fellows and graduate teaching fellows and research assistants will head to the polls to vote for a second time.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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