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Mizzou reverses course, will continue to pay graduate health insurance

Mizzou reverses course, will continue to pay graduate health insurance

University of Missouri Day of Action

First year graduate student Drew Amidei, front right, shouts with others during a "day of action" to celebrate graduate students and draw attention to demands Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, near the columns on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. (Daniel Brenner/The Columbia Daily Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

University of Missouri-Columbia graduate assistants appear to have won their battle to retain the university-paid health insurance subsidies they were stripped of earlier this year.

Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin told a meeting of faculty Wednesday the university will be able to cover health insurance payments for graduate assistants for the foreseeable future.

Loftin did not offer further details or say what has changed since August, when the university announced — two weeks before the start of the school year — that it would no longer provide subsidies to its graduate assistants to pay for health coverage.

School spokesman Christian Basi said the university will have more details at some point before the end of the year.

Graduate assistants are a subgroup of the graduate student population. They are student teachers pursuing their doctorates while also teaching classes, grading papers and conducting research.

Many of them are highly recruited and turned down offers from other schools to come to Mizzou, in part, because of the benefits package, including the health coverage.

The school’s earlier decision to roll back the benefits threatened to damage Mizzou’s reputation both inside and outside of Columbia as grad students loudly protested the policy change, staging a walkout and launching a social media campaign.

Faculty also joined the fight, protesting alongside graduate students and writing a letter to the chancellor expressing their opposition.

A main gripe among faculty was that the policy change would put Mizzou at a severe disadvantage in recruiting new graduate assistants.

“The fact is people across the U.S. are watching to see how Mizzou was going to handle this,” said Matt McCune, a research assistant pursuing a doctorate in physics. “There was really no way they could deny us this.”

But McCune said a guarantee from the university doesn’t carry the same weight it once did.

“We were guaranteed health coverage by our departments, and in August that went away,” he said. “It’s hard to really trust a guarantee. If the situation changes, (Loftin) could change his mind again.”

Mizzou initially pointed to the Affordable Care Act as the reason for the policy change. School officials said the law prevents employers from giving employees money specifically to buy health insurance from individual market plans.

Because the IRS classifies graduate teaching and research assistants as employees, rather than students, they fall under this interpretation.

Other schools, however, have interpreted the law differently and continued to offer health subsidies without interruption.

By changing the policy, Mizzou stood to save millions. The school spent about $4 million on health insurance stipends for 3,100 graduate students in 2014.

Before this week’s announcement, Mizzou had already somewhat backed off the policy change and agreed to extend the health stipends for another year.

That concession came after intense student backlash and pressure from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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