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Graduate Students Speak Out

(All names changed for anonymity)

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09/30/23 Story #1: Dental Insurance

Brad has been a graduate student at Iowa State University for less than two months and has already hit ISU’s graduate student dental plan’s annual maximum. In other words, Brad’s dental insurance won’t pay for anything going forward because of necessary oral surgery. “I needed to have a root canal done on two teeth,” he said. “Between those root canals and the two permanent fillings I needed, I paid over $1,500 even with insurance and will have to pay all of my dental costs for the rest of the year.”

Dental insurance works differently than health insurance. In health insurance plans, after the insured meets a set deductible dollar amount, insurance pays 100% of expenses. In dental insurance, an annual maximum usually works the opposite way. After dental insurance pays a set dollar amount, called the annual maximum, the plan will no longer pay costs and the insured is responsible for 100% of expenses.

“I had to pay that much [$1,500] even while going to an in-network specialist,” he said. “If I had gone out of network [with ISU’s Delta Dental plan] while I was back home, I would have had to pay the entire amount.” This type of structure – both the annual maximum and the penalties for going out of network - are normal for dental insurance. The annual maximum for ISU’s Student and Scholar Dental Program, the only dental insurance program graduate students are eligible for through the university, is only $750. This is significantly less than the standard annual maximum for dental insurance, which averages between $1,000-$2,000.

This low figure helps explain why Brad met his annual maximum so early. $750 dollars isn’t much if you’ve traditionally struggled with dental health. Root canals can easily reach over $1000, fixing chipped or cracked teeth averages around $300 (that number skyrockets if you need a crown), and even the cost of simple cavity fillings ranges into the hundreds. In poll of ISU graduate students, 81% said they had foregone medical care due to expenses.

Through collective bargaining power, a graduate student union would empower ISU’s graduate student workers to negotiate for better healthcare. “Dental insurance is broken on a number of levels,” Brad said, “but it doesn’t have to be. At the University of Iowa, their union was able to negotiate an annual dental maximum of $1,000. That extra money can go a long way, especially if you’re in a situation like mine.”

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