An Issue of Equity: How I’m Paying the Price for UW Denying my Health Care
I am a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Washington, and have enjoyed my time here working with colleagues to advance science in my field of evolutionary biology. But as a UW employee I’ve also been subject to a deeply unfair policy that stripped my health insurance coverage and has resulted in an immense amount of personal and professional hardship. I’ve helped start a Postdoc union and am pushing for a first contract to make positive change but think it’s also important that a wider audience know my story.
I started at UW in 2016, and was thrilled to join the Santana Lab in the Department of Biology. We research the evolutionary connections between morphology, biomechanics and ecology in mammals, which helps us to understand what factors contribute to modern biodiversity. I am proud of the progress we are making and believe in the value of our work.
Within a year of starting at UW, I had the luck of being able to apply for a fellowship that was open to Canadian citizens like myself. The award is so competitive that it is limited to one lifetime application per person. In 2017, I was both astounded and honored to hear that my application was successful. These are the types of awards that help individuals like me advance my career but also help the University gain prestige and free up more money for research, so it seemed like a win-win.
My elation was soon tempered when I was told that as a result, UW would be cancelling my health insurance. The reason? Despite working over 40 hours a week and having the same duties as before, UW policy was that I could no longer be considered a full-time employee because I was a “Paid Direct” by my non-UW funding source. Under the circumstances I hesitated to accept my fellowship. But I knew that it would help me pursue my dream of a permanent job in academic science, while also freeing up money from my supervisor’s grant that could fund more research.
I didn’t see myself as having much of a choice. I decided to take it, despite the risks.
I applied for special enrollment to secure a new health insurance plan from my state-run exchange, but it would be up to two months before it became active. I therefore had to purchase a temporary insurance plan advertised by UW for international scholars like me. I knew the plan was far inferior to the UW employee plan that had previously covered me, but again, I didn’t have much choice.
Just over a month later, I got sick. Really sick. Despite multiple ER trips and treatments my symptoms got progressively worse. I was in a huge amount of pain and was in and out of doctor’s offices. Eventually I was referred to a specialist and given my final diagnosis: a chronic, painful condition I will live with for the rest of my life. My temporary coverage was totally inadequate, and I soon began to wonder if I would get any assistance paying the bills.
By the time my Washington exchange health plan became active, the damage had already been done. The temporary plan initially denied me coverage after months of delay and put me through a long and agonizing appeal process that sucked hours upon hours of time out of my life to deal with. A year and a half after I got sick I still don’t know much of my bills this plan will pay. Meanwhile even when I secured an ACA compliant plan it had a high deductible, so I was paying with thousands of dollars in medical bills, enduring massive pain, keeping up with the rigors of academic work, and all the while trying to follow my doctor’s orders to avoid stress as it would exacerbate the disease. Sometimes I wondered if I could still be a scientist.
When I heard about the efforts by my Postdoc colleagues to unionize, I realized that this was the only way to address arbitrary, unfair decisions like the one that had cost me my health insurance. Alone, I had no chance in making my case for fair treatment. But together, we’re advocating for not only improvements to our health coverage but also for solutions to the many other problems we face, like frequent harassment and discrimination, economic insecurity, vulnerability due to many of us having international visa status, and more.
Last May, Postdocs voted 90% in favor of the union. And yet, nearly one year later, we are still without a contract that secures our basic rights and fair and equitable treatment. I am one of many who are paying a high price for the University’s decision to purposefully delay contract negotiations.
Every weekend I webcam with my family in Canada. Every weekend they ask how bargaining is going, and if or when I might get back on my old insurance plan. Everytime I must tell them the issue is still unresolved.
Enough is enough. This is an issue of equity, where disabled or chronically ill postdocs are having to bear the brunt of these callous decisions.
Why UW has chosen to delay bargaining our contract is known only to administrators there. Perhaps they believe a long delay will put them in a better position at the bargaining table, or maybe they are hoping that our union will fall apart (it won’t). But trying to delay the democratic will of the 90% of Postdocs who voted for a union has real life costs — costs that are being paid by people like me. It’s time for UW to move forward and finish bargaining a fair contract that includes fair insurance coverage for all of us.