As Republicans work to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and Democrats begin to throw their support behind single-payer plans, the health care debate is producing a wide split in St. Louis — and a similar debate continues across America. But on Feb. 7, the Graduate Workers Union of Washington University in St. Louis won affordable health and dental care for its graduate workers, and here at Loyola, graduate workers are beginning to fight for those same rights.
The state of Loyola University Chicago’s health care benefits display a lack of commitment to its students and social justice mission. Loyola University requires all students to have health insurance. For graduate students, this means providing proof of insurance or enrolling in the university plan run by United Healthcare. While some of graduate students’ health care is subsidized, dental coverage costs extra — $350 more each year.
The university sees dental coverage as “voluntary,” according to the Bursar’s website. However, this isn’t the case for many graduate students and workers. Often, graduate students are forced to pay for their dental care out of pocket, meaning they have to make tough choices about what treatments they can and can’t afford. Many graduate students neglect dental care entirely during their graduate careers because they aren’t provided with dental insurance.
Due to their meager annual stipends, most graduate students find the voluntary $350 annual fee for dental coverage unfeasible. Some are already taking out loans to support themselves or their families during their continued studies, while others live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Nearly a third of younger adults (ages 20-39) have some form of untreated tooth decay, which represents the highest percentage of any age group, according to a recent American Dental Association study. Young adults are also three times more likely to not have dental insurance than children, mostly due to financial restrictions, including low wages and student loan debt, according to Forbes.
Dental care is more than just teeth cleaning and filling cavities. For some graduate students, oral hygiene has much larger implications for their overall health. For example, students with diabetes must be more attentive to their dental care, because they’re at an increased risk for dental diseases, such as gingivitis, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Those diagnosed with diabetes are three to four times more likely to develop gum disease, which damages gum tissue and can eventually erode the jawbone, according to recent peer reviewed studies. Many diabetic graduate students forego their doctor-recommended dental care, putting them at serious risk of developing health complications throughout their graduate student careers.
Diabetes and other autoimmune diseases can also cause more severe and prolonged oral infections, such as periodontitis, which require immediate medical attention. Loyola graduate students with autoimmune deficiencies aren’t in a financial position to enroll in dental care voluntarily, but must as a result of their other health conditions — conditions the university claims to cover in their student health plan.
The issue of dental coverage is an easy and low cost fix: Subsidize dental care as part of our graduate student health care package. This would be a positive change for graduate students across the university and significantly better the quality of life for many.
Since Pope John XXIII listed access to adequate health care as a universal right in the encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” the university’s Jesuit mission commitment should also be a commitment to improving graduate student health care.