By Sophie Smith
Courtesy of Willamette University Archives and Special Collections.
If you find yourself near the Eastside residences, look up. You will see declarations, written in blue electrical tape, plastered to the windows of first-year student dorm rooms. Highlights include: “OJ Didn’t Do It,” “I’m Gay” and “Let’s Talk About Student Health Care.” The latter, a joint effort done in rainbow Post-It notes across several windows, directly faces Bishop Wellness Center.
Bishop, tucked away in the Baxter housing complex, is in many ways the backbone of Willamette. Hundreds of students rely on the center for physical, mental and emotional health services. It is a safety net for many, providing quality care to students without the usual challenges that are wrapped up in modern healthcare, both political and economic. Bishop offers a wide variety of affordable health, reproductive and emotional services to all students, regardless of citizenship, gender or income.
That is, it used to be this way. While counseling, reproductive health and some physical health services remain intact for the time being, the university’s budget deficit has resulted in the gutting of many other services, and the future of the center is uncertain. Currently, students with most physical injuries or illnesses are advised to visit local urgent care centers.
To many, the solution is simple: raise student fees to cover the costs it would take to save Bishop. In an all-campus email last week, however, Vice President of Student Affairs Ed Whipple rebutted what school administrators find to be an impractical solution. Their primary concern is that Willamette is not a healthcare provider. The school cannot offer competitive salaries to potential Bishop employees, and the cost of health services has increased rapidly in recent months. With at least three years remaining in Donald Trump’s presidency, it is unlikely that rising costs will taper in the near future.
Yes, by legal definition, Willamette is not a healthcare provider. The University is, however, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of its students. In the words of the ASWU Senate, cutting Bishop programs is “an overt negligence” of students’ needs, putting our bodies, minds and futures in jeopardy. As the administration searches for sustainable solutions — which should be viable enough to protect future generations of students — current students find themselves in a gray area. If we are hurt, where do we go? Will our insurance cover a visit to urgent care? How do we get there if we don’t have a car? During this transitional period, students are in limbo: a dangerous place to be.
Students and administration are growing frustrated. In our email inboxes we see an ongoing disagreement unfolding between ASWU and University leaders. Yet, amidst this conflict, progress is being made. A committee is working to advise University leaders what steps should be taken to both offer students some form of healthcare and to balance the budget — to find a compromise between the two.
But student health should not be a compromise. Students must have full access to all types of healthcare, regardless of their insurance plans. If the administration’s concern is that all potential solutions are not practical in the long term, why not implement one of those short-term solutions until a more sustainable one can be made?
I do not mean to convey that I understand all the inner workings of balancing a university budget. But here’s what I do know: student healthcare should not be a negotiation. Students have the right to full access to care, and what Bishop offers is irreplaceable.
In the ten weeks I have been at Willamette, I have visited Bishop six times. In all instances, staff members greeted me with warmth and respect, working together to start a treatment plan I should have sought years ago. In fact, my experiences at Bishop have been among the most significant and empowering I have had since arriving at school. I can’t imagine how different my first semester would be if I didn’t have such easy access to reliable care.
The administration is looking for long-term solutions. Here’s one: protect Bishop. Protect the accessibility, anonymity and affordability of care Willamette students have come to rely upon. Until a more permanent solution can be made, do whatever it takes to give all students access to healthcare, even if that means raising student fees until further notice. Compromises can be made on other parts of the budget. But not this. Not our health.