On UI trustees' agenda: Student health-insurance rate increase, mascot ideas

On UI trustees' agenda: Student health-insurance rate increase, mascot ideas

URBANA — Higher student health-insurance rates, a new international travel policy for students and public comments on proposed Illini mascots are on today's agenda for University of Illinois trustees.

The board meeting begins at 8 a.m. at the Illini Union, though the public portion of the meeting doesn't start until around 9:30 a.m.

Chancellor Robert Jones was out of the country recently when a students in a nonbinding referendum barely voted down an unofficial "Alma Otter" mascot proposal, which had gone viral in recent weeks.

Jones wouldn't bite when asked Wednesday about that and other suggestions that have emerged in recent weeks — including "Champ the Fighting Illini," a World War I soldier, drawn up by UI sophomore Mike Skibski, who will address trustees today in the public-comments section of the meeting.

Jones said he's made it clear that he wants to wait until he gets a recommendation from the Commission on Native Imagery on whether to look at a mascot but also on "a proactive way of establishing other traditions that would help increase a sense of belonging and school spirit."

"In the interim, I'm sure there will be other organic ideas that percolate up over time. It just demonstrates that there's very strong interest in trying to fill what is perceived by many as a void," he said.

Skibski has said "Champ" would fit perfectly as a symbol, given its historical ties to the Fighting Illini and Memorial Stadium, which honors UI alumni killed in World War I.

His father, Rich, is also scheduled to speak at today's meeting in support of the idea from an alumni perspective. Also on the list are Ivan Alex Dozier, a former unofficial Chief portrayer, and Breelyn Fay, who has spoken out strongly in support of the Chief.

Student health coverage

If trustees approve, undergraduates at the Urbana campus would pay $544 a semester for health insurance next school year, $89 more than before — a 20 percent rate increase. Graduate students would pay $696, up from $582 this year.

The health insurance, which is provided by United Healthcare, is optional for students who are covered under their parents' plans. About 54 percent of Urbana students opted out this year.

Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson said the insurer paid out $1.09 for every $1 it collected in premiums, with a rising number of claims and the average cost for each going up. That includes increases for prescription drugs, digestive-health and mental-health needs.

Undergraduate rates at the Urbana campus are second-lowest in the Big Ten, behind only Purdue, Wilson said. The graduate rate is higher because the Graduate Employees' Organization negotiated a top-tier health plan in their contract, she said. It falls in the middle among Big Ten schools.

But Urbana students also pay a mandatory $238 health-service fee each semester for the McKinley Health Center, which provides basic health services, counseling and generic prescription drugs without dipping into insurance.

Rates for students at the UI Chicago would rise by 18 percent, or $103, to $673 a semester. The Chicago campus self-insures through the UI hospital and clinics. It had net losses of $2 million in 2017 and 2018, with some "catastrophic" cases and rising medical expenses, and the transgender benefits program has also cost more than anticipated, she said.

Rates on that campus haven't risen since 2014, and will still be the least expensive among the UI Chicago's peers, she said.

Students at the UI Springfield, who are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, would pay a whopping 63 percent more next year, or $866 a semester. The problem is the small size of the plan, with just 910 students participating this year, Wilson said. It's also had several major claims and a continuing rise in mental-health costs.

Those two campuses have smaller health service fees — $92 in Chicago and $80 in Springfield — for counseling and mental-health services.

The university is examining whether it can combine Springfield students with Urbana's plan, "but it will be challenging" because of geography and other factors, Wilson said.

Travel rules

The new travel policy, proposed after a risk-management review, would require all students traveling outside the U.S. as part of a class, study-abroad program or other UI-related activity to register their plans with the university and carry approved international insurance.

Students on faculty-led programs would also have to attend a mandatory orientation before departing and an on-site orientation in the host country upon arrival. Individual student travelers and those participating in third-party study programs would be strongly encouraged to participate in the on-site orientation.

Graduate students traveling to conduct research, attend an academic conference or participate in other research-related activities would be required to register their international travel with the UI and carry approved international insurance or equivalent policies.

Faculty and staff members accompanying students traveling outside the U.S. would have to do the same, and would also be required to undergo training in safety, security and response protocols, including responsibilities for addressing reports of sexual misconduct.

Employees who travel without students for university-related business would be strongly encouraged to register their plans and carry insurance.

Currently, the UI doesn't require any registration for students or staff members traveling abroad, though some already do that, Wilson said.

"We had uneven information about that in the past," she said, prompting anxiety about small programs such as a one-week trip as part of a class.

The new policy, and coordination among the three campuses, will "make everybody feel more comfortable with the amount of travel we do."