Graduate, professional students lobby for student dental insurance

Drilling, bad-tasting fluoride and sore jaws aside, some Yale students would still like to be able to go to the dentist’s office more often.

Since early last semester, members of Yale’s graduate- and professional-school organizing bodies have been working to convince University administrators of the need for student dental insurance, which is currently not included in the Yale Health Plan. But even as they gear up this semester to circulate a petition among graduate students and intensify their lobbying efforts, administrators — who cited cost as the primary obstacle — said it seems unlikely student insurance options will expand to include dental coverage.

Through conversations with Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, meetings with the Yale Health Plan advisory committee and, soon, the launch of the petition, students are working to convince administrators that the increased payout from the University’s endowment should be partly used to pay for a dental health benefit.

Currently, Yale students who want to visit a dentist must either pay out of pocket or have coverage under their own or their parents’ private insurance plan. Yale employees, on the other hand, are offered dental insurance as part of their benefits package.

“We’d really like to work with the administration on this,” Graduate and Professional Student Senate student advocate Meagan Mauter GRD ’12 said. “I think most people would agree that dental care is something that they want.”

“The goal is to get dental coverage so that it costs less than [the price of] two cleanings a year,” assembly member Bryan Woods GRD ’11 added.

Woods suggested that providing dental coverage to all students would be considerably less expensive than the current financial-aid increases for undergraduate students.

Butler said before his tenure as dean of the Graduate School, a comprehensive and expensive dental plan was offered to graduate students. But low participation in that plan, Butler said, suggests dental insurance would be unpopular and unprofitable.

“The Graduate School makes many choices about what would be the best kind of support to offer its students,” Butler said. “The cost of a fully subsidized plan would be very high [for the University], and demonstrated student interest in the past has been very modest.”

Paul Genecin, director of University Health Services, said, in general, it is very difficult for insurance providers to make dental plans profitable. Often, only people with “significant dental needs” will opt for an insurance plan, while those with healthy teeth save money — at least in the short run — by remaining uninsured, he said.

Woods said GPSS and the assembly hope to avoid this pitfall by advocating an “opt-out” program, whereby students are automatically enrolled in the program unless they waive coverage, which he said will lead to more participation.

Genecin said there are no plans in the near future to offer University-wide student dental insurance.

“The University has not sought to provide dental care in the past and I do not think that the basic charter of the Yale Health Plan is likely to change in this particular regard,” Genecin wrote in an e-mail. “I do not think Yale will offer dental coverage to students any time in the foreseeable future.”

Graduate students can currently subscribe to the CO-Health Group Collegiate Plan, whereby they receive discounts at certain New Haven-area dentist offices. The Graduate School has an independent contract with CO-Health that does not extend to undergraduates or professional students.

Woods scoffed at the discount plan.

“It’s more of a referral program than anything else,” he said.

Butler said his office has examined some dental insurance options and will meet with the assembly’s steering committee “in several weeks” to discuss the issue.

Mauter said GPSS also plans to meet with University President Richard Levin and the Provost’s office this semester.

School of Management Dean Joel Podolny, School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern and Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said they had not been contacted by any of their students regarding dental insurance.

Woods said despite GPSS’ involvement in advocating for the issue, they have decided to focus primarily on the Graduate School because of its sheer size compared to the professional schools.

The Graduate School currently enrolls 2,768 students total, while the Law School, the professional school with the highest enrollment, enrolls 664 students.

A key aspect of the students’ argument for dental care has been to compare Yale’s policy with other universities. Yale’s peers, they contend, offer much more comprehensive care than the University when it comes to student teeth.

“I attended the Ivy Summit back in November,” Mauter said. “We were amazed at how affordable and widespread the plans were and the lack of that at Yale.”

The Ivy Summit is an annual event coordinated between students at Ivy League graduate schools and was held at Brown University last year.

Harvard University offers an outside insurance plan through which single-person coverage is $233 per year. Students covered under that plan do not have to pay for preventive services such as cleanings.

Columbia University offers students discounted fee-for-service plans administered through their own and New York University’s dentistry schools. Primary membership fees are $205 per year.

Woods said Yale’s lack of similar dental coverage gives it a competitive disadvantage when prospective students are choosing which graduate school to attend.

But Butler argued that Yale’s overall health insurance for graduate students far exceeds that of other universities.

“We are providing support for graduate students at an extremely high level,” Butler said. “We are funding full health insurance for [graduate students’] children and health insurance for [graduate students’] spouses. No other graduate school is doing that among private universities.”

The Graduate School pays for 50 percent of the health insurance costs for the spouses of students and the full cost for students’ children.

Two graduate students interviewed said they hope the campaign for dental insurance succeeds.

Adi Greif GRD ’13 said although she is currently healthy, tooth problems and lack of dental coverage could combine to distract students from their studies at Yale.

“I just started graduate school this year, and I must say, not having dental care included gives me every incentive to skip regular dental checkups,” Greif said. “Why should I pay out of my limited funds to see a dentist if nothing seems wrong? However, I worry that something could happen that I won’t notice until it gets really bad, and then I’ll have to pay more later.”

Joseph Yannielli GRD ’12, who exceeded the age limit for coverage under his parents’ insurance plan several years ago, said high costs are the main deterrent to his obtaining private dental insurance.

“I actually haven’t had a dental checkup in a couple of years,” Yannielli said. “It’s not something I have to worry about now … but I’m sure it’s not going to be helpful down the line.”

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