The Mount Saint Vincent University Students' Union has passed a referendum to expand health and dental coverage to all students with MSI, but the school says it won't implement the changes.
The current health plan only applies to full-time undergraduate students, which means part-time students and graduate students aren't covered and are unable to opt in.
"We believe that health care is a right and not a privilege, and some of the comments that we've had directly from students really voice their concerns and their need," said Jesse Sutherland, president of the student union.
"We have students with serious accessibility needs, they're paying for medical practitioners out of pocket, and we think it's a matter of equity and diversity."
Sutherland said there are many reasons why some people may not be full-time students.
"Some just aren't capable of doing it for personal reasons. We have parents, single parents, folks with accessibility needs, folks who are not eligible for loans and need to work to support themselves," she said. "We don't think that anyone should be penalized for personal circumstances and not be able to get health care."
The referendum passed on Dec. 15 would make participation in the health plan mandatory for those students, though people with other coverage could opt out. The plan would cost about $475 a year.
According to MSVU's 2018 enrolment statistics, graduate students make up about a quarter of the entire student population, and a quarter of all undergraduate students are part time.
Vote not representative of student population, school says
In an email, Paula Barry Mercer, associate vice-president of student experience at MSVU, said it would be "irresponsible" of the school to implement the health plan given the low voter turnout.
Mercer said voter turnout was 1.6 per cent for part-time undergraduate students and 0.08 per cent for part-time graduate students.
"Such a low turn-out cannot be deemed representative of the part-time student population at the University," the statement said.
Sutherland acknowledged the low turnout, but she said the union has been doing surveys and consulting students on this subject for two years.
"I think it's important to note that historically we've always had a low turnout so these numbers aren't very much different from what we've seen in previous years, and we expected them to be a bit lower due to the pandemic," she said.
"We ran our election, we followed all of our bylaws, all of our policies. This is a fair referendum done the way we're supposed to do it, done the way we've always done it."
Sutherland said there are students who expected to be able to claim health-care expenses incurred since September who won't be able to now.
Students will continue to push for change
Katerina Allan, MSVU's graduate studies representative, was elected to her position in September 2019 and ran on a platform of expanding health insurance to graduate students.
"It's really important that graduate students have access to health insurance. We're one of the only schools that doesn't currently offer health insurance to our graduate student body," she said.
She said part-time students also need access to the health-care plan due to the diverse needs of the student community, especially during the pandemic when they may have additional needs for mental health services.
"A lot of people know that those services can be quite expensive if you don't have any coverage," said Allan.
Mercer noted in her email that where the plan is an opt-out, rather than opt-in, the health plan would become a required fee for all part-time students.
"If a student couldn't demonstrate that they had alternate coverage, they would be required to pay the nearly $500 fee for the plan, essentially doubling fees for students taking one course, and with insufficient notice (fees are due mid-January)," she said.
"We're concerned about the significant financial hardship this change would cause them."
But Allan, like Sutherland, is satisfied the student union did their due diligence in educating people about the plan and what it entails.
"If the university is concerned about students having to pay an additional fee … the solution is to provide additional financial aid, not to deny them health care," she said.
Allan and Sutherland say they'll continue to push the school to implement the change.
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