The Adjunct Health Insurance Catch-22

April 6, 2010

Tracy Donhardt was so excited that she and fellow adjuncts in the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis had found a way to get health insurance together that she wanted to let other adjuncts know they could sign up, too.

But when she asked the university’s human resources department for help getting the word out, the whole plan was, almost immediately, shattered. “I contacted them, said, ‘Hey, look at we did, isn’t it great?' ” she recalled.

Like so many other adjuncts nationwide, IUPUI's non-tenure track faculty worked without health insurance. The chance to secure an affordable policy seemed sure to please. The plan, developed by the Associate Faculty Advisory Board, of which Donhardt is president, wasn't going to cost the university a cent in contributions; it just gave the adjuncts the huge actuarial benefit of being in a group.

Within a few minutes of sending an e-mail message to the right person at Indiana University at Bloomington -- one of IUPUI’s parent institutions -- “The response was, basically, no,” she said.

The problem, wrote Indiana University’s director of health care and welfare services, Susan L. Brewer, was that “a department, organization or group of employees of the university cannot in any way offer or make available a group insurance plan to employees.”

The insurance -- limited medical coverage offered by HCH Administration, Inc., and underwritten by Aegis Group -- was, of course, a group plan, which made it cheaper than if faculty went out on their own to find individual insurance. In estimates, the plans would range from $88.90 per month for a single person opting for the barest-bones offering to $616.90 for a top-level family policy.

The university wouldn’t be making payroll deductions, contributing to premiums or otherwise organizing or paying for the insurance, but it would, Brewer wrote in a subsequent e-mail to Donhardt, have “a variety of statutory, oversight and contractual requirements that are the responsibility of the university.” Under university regulations, benefits have to be managed at the institutional level – and there was no way, Brewer said, for her to bend the rules.

The whole thing doesn’t quite make sense to Donhardt, a former journalist who’s also pursing a master’s degree in English. “Obviously we need insurance and there are lots of people who want it,” she said.

Before the effort to expand the policy’s reach beyond the School of Liberal Arts and running into bureaucratic walls, she added, there was widespread support for the plan, not just from part-timers but also from full-time faculty and IUPUI administrators. “No one realized we were violating a policy,” she said. “A lot of people thought this was a great idea.”

One of those people was William Blomquist, dean of liberal arts, who said that he considered it “admirable that the part-time faculty had self-organized in this way.” He added, “I thought it was really very thoughtful and sort of enterprising for them to go out and find a group policy for themselves.”

With the denial from Indiana administrators, though, Donhardt and her colleagues are looking toward other options. They’ve organized a teach-in, beginning today, for which faculty members are encouraged to take some time to discuss adjunct issues in their classes.

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