Stony Brook’s grant-funded postdoctoral researchers will soon have a wider array of health insurance options in a move that will – paradoxically – cost principal investigators (PIs) far less on their grants.
Starting July 1, SUNY Research Foundation (SUNY RF) will reduce the fringe benefit cost for postdocs on grants from 41% of a postdoc’s salary to 25%. An additional and equally important outcome of this process is that SUNY RF will also add options for health insurance and extend those same options to postdocs on prestigious fellowships. This will provide so-called “seamless benefits” for the first time for SBU grant-funded postdocs who seek prestigious individual fellowships to support their salary and research.
“With seamless benefits for postdocs and the reduced cost of conducting research, our goal is to attract and retain top postdoctoral talent thus advancing SUNY’s reputation as a leader in research and innovation,” said Kate Malia, Director of Human Resources at SUNY RF, who helped lead the taskforce that recommended these changes.
Equity in benefits is an emerging national issue for postdoctoral scholars. The National Postdoctoral Association found in 2017 that almost half of responding research institutions did not offer any kind of health insurance to externally-funded postdocs on fellowships. The report called for benefit equality among all classifications of postdocs independent of funding source.
Stony Brook, like other SUNY research centers, also experienced this challenge, where postdocs who won prestigious national or international fellowships then risked losing access to health insurance through the university. In 2016, SUNY RF conducted a comprehensive review of benefits for all employees and, as a result, formed a special taskforce of faculty, staff and administrators from across the SUNY system to examine the unique benefits needs of postdocs.
“Key to the success of this project was a dedicated and empowered team,” Malia said. Nancy Goroff, Professor of Chemistry, who served on the taskforce, agreed. “The taskforce included a broad group of stakeholders who were able to articulate for SUNY RF the importance of postdocs to the research enterprise. We were thrilled that we could both expand health care coverage and save research grant dollars.”
The SUNY RF taskforce employed a known strategy for lowering the cost of postdoc benefits, but in a novel way. A common assumption is that cheaper benefits must be lower quality, but postdocs are often less expensive to insure, said Steve Johnson, Vice President at Garnett-Powers and Associates, Inc., an insurance broker that has worked with the postdoctoral community for over a decade. “In general, postdocs are younger, healthier and do not age like faculty/staff as they can only be a postdoc for a maximum of 5 years.” The taskforce found that SUNY RF’s self-insured health insurance programs, which were already available to postdoc grant-funded employees, could allow postdocs to be pulled out into their own risk pool, effectively lowering the cost while still enjoying the identical coverage.
These lower costs were combined with additional cost savings in the removal of a benefit postdocs typically do not use: health insurance during retirement from their postdoc position. This combination of savings would reduce the marginal cost of benefits for grant-funded postdocs by over a third, saving the typical grant almost $8000 or more per year for an entry-level postdoc. “This welcome change to the fringe rate for postdocs more closely aligns us with other leading research universities and restores the competitive edge to our principal investigators when budgeting their research proposals,” said Richard J. Reeder, Vice President for Research.
Fast forward to Spring 2019. Stony Brook PIs have already started to budget new grants at the lower fringe rate that will go into effect on July 1, 2019. Current RF postdocs had the option to switch their health insurance between the newly expanded options during open enrollment in May. The only remaining challenge is convincing PIs and postdocs that the change isn’t too good to be true. When it comes to postdocs, a reduction in cost doesn’t always require a reduction in benefits.
By Kathleen Flint Ehm and Kryste Ferguson
Kathleen Flint Ehm, PhD, is Stony Brook’s Director for Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Development and represented SBU on the SUNY RF postdoc fringe rate taskforce. Kryste Ferguson is Manager of Membership and Special Projects at the National Postdoctoral Association and served as a consultant on the taskforce.
This article is adapted with permission from the National Postdoctoral Association’s POSTDOCket newsletter, April 2019 edition