Grad students, faculty support new federal action on health care subsidies

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COLUMBIA — Leaders of both faculty and graduate students responded positively on Tuesday to recently issued federal health care recommendations on graduate student health care subsidies.

The recommendations from the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury indefinitely remove the possibility that MU would be fined by the federal government for providing graduate students with health care subsidies. 

"I'm happy because I get to keep my health insurance, but at the same time I would like a stronger guarantee than what we've got," said Eric Scott, co-chair of the Coalition of Graduate Workers.

Scott is concerned that an equal and opposite set of recommendations could undo the extension. A permanent fix in the form of legislative change would end the uncertainty. 

Ben Trachtenberg, chair of the MU Faculty Council said, “Nothing’s stopping us from coming up with something better if we can, but at least we’re not under the gun of a threat of some federal fine.” 

The recommendations came as a relief to Trachtenberg, who said the inability to ensure health care coverage was crippling the university's recruiting efforts.  

MU has been providing the graduate students with health care subsidies without the possibility of federal fines since February 2016, when the IRS and Labor Department announced they would not enforce their 2013 interpretation of the Affordable Care Act, which made such a practice illegal.  The announcement said the interpretation would not be enforced for one "plan year" beginning before January 1, 2017.  MU Spokesperson Christian Basi believes the subsidies would have run through the spring 2017 semester.  The recent federal recommendations extend that period indefinitely.  

In August 2015, former MU Chancellor Bowen Loftin announced MU would resume providing the health care benefits to the graduate workers despite the risk of federal fines, after services had been ended earlier that month.

Graduate students responded by protesting and voting to unionize in April. The university did not acknowledge the union, and the graduate students sued MU in the Boone County Circuit Court for recognition in May. The motion hearing is set for Nov. 21.   

Despite the legal proceedings, the conversation on graduate student health care will continue. 

Basi emailed KOMU 8 News saying, "the secondary extension has allowed the university the time and ability to work toward identifying a permanent quality, affordable, health coverage solution for our graduate students looking forward."