Machen aims for UF health care fix


Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 11:06 p.m.
The University of Florida's lackluster health care plan for graduate students is crippling the university's recruitment efforts, UF President Bernie Machen told trustees Friday.
Machen has been actively pushing lawmakers to help fund a more robust health care plan, which would give graduate students better coverage at no cost to them. UF is asking the state to spend $5 million a year funding the plan, leaving another $5 million for UF to pay from the university's own coffers.
"It's a big number," Machen conceded. "A $10 million number."
As of yet, the proposal has not been folded into any piece of legislation, and Machen said it's been difficult to get support from all 10 of the state's other public universities. Graduate student health care is an important issue for research institutions like Florida State University and UF, Machen said, but it's not a priority for universities with less substantial research programs.
Upgrading the plan is a crucial piece in UF's efforts to break into the top-10 public universities in the nation. Compared with a slate of 10 peer institutions, UF lags behind most when it comes to the number of postdoctoral appointees on campus, Machen showed in his presentation. "Postdocs" are traditionally the research hounds of public institutions, Machen said, and UF will have trouble improving its national reputation without more of them.
But bringing more postdoctoral appointees to UF will require a more competitive overall package, including a better health care plan, Machen said. Under UF's current plan, graduate students pay $1,088 a year, with the university paying a stipend of $500 to help cover the premium. Many of UF's toughest competitors cover 100 percent of the cost of premiums for graduate students.
"These are schools we compete against," Machen told the 11 trustees, gathered in Emerson Alumni Hall. ". . . While we think we have a very outstanding faculty, sometimes decisions get made on this basis alone."
UF has settled on a provider to use if the Legislature funds the plan, said Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of human resources.
Upgrading the health care plan is part of an overall push to increase UF's graduate enrollment. Of the 47,858 students enrolled at UF, 10,348 - 22 percent - are graduate students. Machen would like to see graduate enrollment comprise 25 percent of the student body.
The uptick in graduate enrollment is a plan years in the making, dating back to the presidency of John Lombardi in the 1990s. A major advertising campaign, and other recruitment efforts, have led to a 20 percent increase in graduate enrollment at UF since 2000. Machen called the six-year increase "huge."
The competition for top-tier graduate students is fierce, said Wayne McCormack, associate dean for graduate education in UF's College of Medicine. McCormack says his college recently lost key recruits to Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That's in part because UF's stipend, at $22,000 for graduate students, is some $2,000 lower than those of Vanderbilt and UNC, he said.
When asked by trustees how the board could help, McCormack encouraged board members to address the gaps that separate UF from peer institutions in the areas of health care and stipends. "Where the rubber meets the road," he said, "those (gaps) are the things that result in road kill."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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