Health Care and Benefits

Version 2.0 - 1/30/15

In January of 2015, we polled the current fellows to determine the amount they generally pay out of their research/benefits funds for health insurance premiums. All the numeric responses are included in the table below.

There are basically three ways that NSF fellows are getting health insurance.

  • Bought personally, either through the marketplace, or through another insurance provider. Insurance companies often sell insurance privately via their own websites. These offerings can vary from state to state.
  • Insurance through the spouse’s employer. Often these are the cheapest options because employers subsidize healthcare plans for families and spouses. Important Note: One fellow reminds that if you pay your spouse back for subsidized insurance, it counts as supplemental income. Money taken directly from paychecks for healthcare is pre-tax.
  • Through the host institution. This option may not be available at every host institution. Some institutions allow existing employees to become “zero-salary” or go on “leave without benefits”. This allows the employee to retain benefits, but they have to pay the entire un-subsidized amount to the university. It seems that some fellows remain employees at their host institutions and therefore pay a reduced rate. Another fellow found a “visiting scholar” plan at his host institution.

In the table, some people are double counted if their insurance situation changed (two people twice, one person three times); I put the prices for 1 year of a situation, even if the total time was less.

$/yr for Premiums Adults Children Total Through? Notes To share on website
15228 2 0 2 Institution Incl dental ($75/month)
14048 2 0 2 Institution
9900 2 0 2 Independent
8100 1 0 1 Institution Incl dental
6500 1 0 1 Independent
6360 1 0 1 Institution
6300 2 0 2 Partner (Full Employee Contribution)
6163 2 0 2 Independent
6000 1 0 1 Institution
5800 1 0 1 Institution Health, dental, vision
4860 2 0 2 Partner (Full Employee Contribution) Additional 3K deductible, possible 2K to get max out of pocket
4750 1 2 3 Independent Only medical, no prescription, eye, dental
4200 1 0 1 Institution
3700 1 0 1 Independent Incl dental
3000 2 0 2 Partner (Full Employee Contribution)
2988 2 0 2 Partner (Full Employee Contribution) Incl dental ($62/month)
2280 1 0 1 Independent Vision/dental through inst $20/month
1400 1 0 1 Institution
1920 1 1 2 Partner (Additional Portion of Contribution)

Version 1.0 - 4/4/03

In the spirit of Kathy Dyer's web page on taxes for NSF Fellows:

How are benefits, especially health insurance, dealt with as a NSF Fellow?

This was triggered by the following situation:

I am now dealing with an issue I imagine most of you have dealt with: Health Benefits. According to my university (where I'm currently at, and will be for the next year, I will no longer exist after August 15th, as that's when I switch over to the AAPF money. Their position is that I am no longer an employee, and do not deserve benefits. They will set up COBRA for me, but obviously I'd prefer to stick with the benefits I already have.

So, I'd like to hear how other NSF Fellows have dealt with this issue.

First off, here is the official response I got from Kathy Eastwood from the NSF:

Hi, John

Unfortunately, we have no control over your institution. I think you've already hit on the best way to go about this, i.e. to ask other fellows what kind of solutions they have found. Have they considered putting you on as a zero-salary employee? I know at least one place has done that. But it really depends on the rules of the institution.

The only "official" thing I can tell you is to point you towards the program announcement, (note: this is out of date) where it says that "An institutional allowance of $5,000 per year is paid to the host institution for the purposes of providing fringe benefits, including health insurance for the Fellow, and for expenses incurred in support of the Fellow, such as general purpose supplies and use of equipment and facilities."

Let me know what happens.


From: Christopher Conselice



My experience with the health insurance is that the way to get it varies by institution. I'm lucky in that Caltech will provide me their insurance but I have to pay a bit more, but that's what the 5k institution money is for. I would see if you could work out a deal to use part of that money to pay the university for providing you insurance.


Christopher J. Conselice, California Institute of Technology

From: Kristy Dyer

Actually I am on COBRA at NRAO paid for out of the $5000 institutional allowance, and I get the exact same health and dental benefits that everyone else here does. It some ways it's better -- I don't pay the 40 or 50$/month fee for the insurance.

The one minor worry is that you are only supposed to be on COBRA for 2 years, but NRAO said not to worry they can get around that, and that it won't even affect my eligibility for COBRA after the NSF Fellowship is over.

So if they think they can make it last > 2 years and if they cover it all out of the allowance, then you should be OK.

Could you do me a favor and collect all the responses you get so that we can put a web page together for the NSF Fellows?

-- Kristy Dyer NRAO Socorro

From: Eric Hooper

Hi John,

> My name is John Feldmeier, and I'm one of the new AAPF people.

Welcome to the gang!

> I am now dealing with an issue I imagine most of you
> have dealt with: Health Benefits.

Oh, yeah.

> According to Case Western Reserve University (where
> I'm currently at, and will be for the next year), I will no
> longer exist after August 15th, as that's when I switch
> over to the AAPF money. Their position is that I am no
> longer an employee, and do not deserve benefits.

That is exactly what University of Texas told me.

> They will set up COBRA for me, but obviously I'd prefer
> to stick with the benefits I already have.

That is what I have done. They take the $5K/year that NSF provides and put it into a university account for me. I then pay the COBRAs and get reimbursed from this account. I'm hoping to use any leftover $$ in that account to contribute to retirement, but I haven't gotten around to checking into that yet.

> So, I'd like to hear how other NSF Fellows have dealt
> with this issue. If I can show the paperwork people here

I'm afraid that's not going to get very far. They're surely bureaucrats whose favorite word is "no." To make much progress I'm afraid you'll have to go to at least the department chair and probably to the dean & higher. You can tell them that this is a major national fellowship that you could have taken anywhere and that this attitude of theirs will discourage others from bringing it there. Point out that you're saving the department around $100K/year in salary, benefits, & overhead (the university is picking up the latter, but not the department directly). I've rumbled to my department chair, and supposedly these and other rumblings have reached the university president. I need to gear up for another campaign this spring or summer.

Hopefully other institutions are better at this, so you'll get some ammo.



Eric J. Hooper
The University of Texas at Austin, Astronomy Department

From: Kim Coble


sorry for the slow reply. hopefully you've gotten some more timely advice. i had the same problem with u of chicago not considering me an employee. it was a long and ugly story but the short version is, after 6 months of haggling with the bureaucracy and being without insurance (!) at all for a while, i ended up getting my own private insurance and being reimbursed by the university from the $5000 (with none skimmed off for overhead or anything).

this actually ended up being pretty nice-- my private insurance has better coverage at a cheaper price than the university's group plan! also, this way i can buy eyeglasses, get my teeth cleaned, etc. from any provider and be reimbursed from the $5000 too. if you're single this is totally the way to go. if you have a family though, coverage might cost more than $5000.

if you can't fight the bureaucracy at least get the cobra until you can find private insurance (eg blue cross/blue shield), which can take a month or two to apply for and process.

good luck!!


From: Aparna Venkatesan

Dear John,

Sorry for this late response to your email from a month ago. First of all, congratulations on being awarded this fellowship, and welcome! I hope that I get to meet you and your classmates (AAPF class of '03) in the near future. It is completely understandable that you wanted to get some feedback on how to set up some of the AAPF paperwork. I too emailed the NSF Fellows about a year ago, because some of the paperwork is set up in a way that is not easy or standard for university administrative staff or the Office of Contracts and Grants to deal with. But, in my experience, setting up the benefits part is the greatest, and likely only, inconvenience associated with this fellowship. The rest of it - being paid directly, and especially being sent the $10K research allowance directly - are wonderful bonuses, because you do not waste time on excessive institutional paperwork and you can make a judgment call as to how you want to spend your research allowance.

One bit of advice that the first year of Fellows gave me which I'll pass on here: you may want to consider setting up a separate bank account for the $10K research allowance. That way, it will have its own ATM/charge card which you can use to directly charge your travel/research expenses (e.g., conference hotels, meals, or a laptop purchase), and regular bank statements that provide a paper trail and a record of charges. This way, you can easily account for every penny for the research allowance, which will be very helpful for your own book-keeping and also in the event that anyone (NSF, your institution, the IRS), if at all, requests more detail on this annual allowance (which, as I understand, we do not have to count as income towards taxes). Several fellows suggested to me that I keep meticulous records, since this fellowship is set up in an unusual way. One Fellow had written to me last year saying that his $10K research allowance was not only in a separate bank account but that the account's checks specifically state "NSF Research Account," with his work address on them. I have my home address on my checks, but this part is totally up to you.

I guess you already know about the tax web page for the Fellows, which is also very helpful.

Regarding the benefits: I too went through months of painful paperwork trail-blazing with the admin. folks here to hold onto my health benefits. I had already been a postdoc at CU-Boulder for 2 years, and so was already in the system, although I am not sure that helped me much. Thanks to the wit, grace and intelligent guesses of some kindly staff here, we have conjured up a special appointment for me ("0% pay, >50% appointment", i.e., I am a full-time employee but am not paid through CU-Boulder), which allowed me to continue to get health insurance through the University at my regular rates. Unfortunately, I had to give up some other terrific benefits here (like matching retirement funds) as part of this special appointment, but that's how it worked out. My research supervisor had very kindly offered to make up the excess in benefits costs, should they exceed the AAPF $5K allowance, but this has not been required yet. So the current health insurance setup is that CU bills me monthly, which I pay out of pocket, and then turn in receipts/paperwork to get reimbursed monthly from a grant containing the $5K sent by NSF to CU. I wish they could just bill my grant directly each month but this is how it has been set up. I also bill the $5K benefits allowance for other medical expenses that are not covered by my insurance, by turning in receipts. Any unused funds should roll over to the next year; I have heard that they can potentially be used for retirement contributions, etc., but I do not know how to get this remaining money "out of the system" and into, e.g., an IRA account in my name. Certainly, at my institution, it sounds like this will be a near-impossible task, and the paperwork, if at all it can be done, would be mountainous. Do keep me posted if you find a way around this: I am copying one of your class's Fellows (Jessica Rosenberg) in on this email, and we are both very interested in what can be done on this issue. Jess is currently a postdoc here and will be keeping her NSF fellowship here, like I did last year. However, the health insurance rates are going up astronomically for us (and have been for the last 2 years) so Jess and I may seek external (private, and not through the University) insurance for next year, in an effort to save our grants some money.

Hope this helps. Congratulations again,

Best wishes,


P.S. I do not mind this being posted at the NSF Fellows web page.

From: Kristy Dyer

If you have "leftover money" don't try to get it into and IRA -- try to get them to put it in TIAA-CREF, which is the retirement plan for educational institutions. It will be easier for them and you can take that with you wherever you go.

-- Kristy

From: John Feldmeier

Hello NSF Fellows,

As for me, after fighting the powers-that-be at my own institution, I am also going the COBRA route. My department is picking up the extra cost the COBRA incurs above the $5000, which is darn decent of them. I wish the university people were more understanding.

One place I found some information on COBRA was

It's a commerical site, but has a lot of the basic information about it.

Thanks a lot for your information.

John Feldmeier

From: Kristy Dyer

The problem is that after we have already received the fellowship, moved and settled in, we are a captive audience (we could pick up and move to a new institution but it would be a pain) and they don't have much motivation to bend the rules for us.

It might actually be better to deal with the health insurance negotiation as you apply for the NSF Fellowship. At that point you can say "Look you are going to get a completely free postdoc -- all you have to do is find a way to cover health insurance out of the 5000 institutional allowance" -- this could be part of the sponsoring letter which we are required to submit to NSF.

I realize that this would put up an extra hoop for applications to jump through, and Eileen or Kathy would have to get permission to alter the instructions for the application process but it's too late to negotiate a change in rules once we arrive.

Or here's another possibility -- when award letters go out, a letter could go out from Eileen and Kathy explaining the institutional allowance and "requiring" the institution (someone at the department head or dean level) to certify that the institution will cover the insurance. Now the student has the fellowship, but the institution doesn't get the student unless they are willing to make this (small) commitment. This would be good in many ways since it allows several months lead time between the award and end of previous insurance. If the institution won't agree to cover the insurance, then the decision could be left up to the student to take it there, or take it elsewhere. However this would present the strongest case -- a letter describing a prestigious national fellowship which could be had for only the cost of insurance which the dean wants approved -- that has the highest likelihood of bending inflexible rules.

From: Kathy Eastwood

Be careful, folks.

First, I absolutely agree that this kind of negotiation has to be done up front. When deciding on a host institution, how the benefits would be handled should be part of the discussion. The alternative, as many of you know, is that after the fellowship is offered but before you actually commit to an institution, it is possible to change the choice of host institution if the arrangements are not acceptable.

Second, the host institutional allowance is actually flexible. There have been several cases where the funds were not needed for health insurance because of spousal coverage. The allowance has been used for such things as child-care and departmental computing fees. It really depends on the arrangements you can make with the institution. The money DOES have to be paid to the institution, not to yourself. So having a flexible institution becomes important.

The expectations of this program are laid out in the program announcement. When negotiating, the thing to do is to produce a copy of the program announcement which discusses the intent of the $5,000. Remember that Eileen and I are very restricted in what we can do; I suspect that we would not be allowed to write letters as Kristy described.



Kathy DeGioia Eastwood, Ph.D.
Program Director, Education and Special Programs
Division of Astronomical Sciences
National Science Foundation


From: Phil Arras

Hi John,

Sorry for the late reply. I'm still dealing with health care issues for my wife. It might be good to insert the following word of caution for people when they get the fellowship and start to look for health insurance. I'm not sure how it is in other states, but the following is true in California.

It is very difficult for women to obtain health insurance after they become pregnant. They are effectively UNINSURABLE. Commercial health insurance companies will not give them insurance. That is, if you do not already have health insurance when you become pregnant, you will not be able to get it at any price. You can insure paintings, houses, and rock concerts, but not pregnant women.

Furthermore, since you or your spouse is an NSF AAPF fellow, your income level makes you ineligible for state or federal programs for people with low income.

The only option you have left is to pay for pre-natal care and the birth out of pocket. If everything goes well, this may only be $10,000-$15,000 when you include paying the hospital and doctor (suddenly $45K does not seem like so much). However, since you are not insured, the real problem is if everything does not go well.

The moral of the story is make sure you or your spouse has health insurance before you decide to have a baby.


Phil Arras