By Gianni Marabella
Yesterday, the University announced a plan to raise the student wellness fee from $100 per year to $310 to allow Bishop Wellness Center to provide both mental and physical health services again in the 2018-2019 academic year.
If the proposal is put into action, students will once again be able to access preventative, primary, urgent and follow-up care at Bishop as they did in 2016. This includes reproductive health and sexual health such as STI checks, birth control prescriptions and UTI’s, which were going to be transitioned out after this year. The main difference from the 2016-2017 year would lie in changes in staff.
“The biggest felt change will be that we used to run with two nurse practitioners and two support staff. Now there will be one nurse practitioner and a medical support and a part time consulting M.D.,” Bishop Director Don Thomson said. “The person in this position would be able to see more complex cases that our nurse practitioner would have had to triage. One may not need a referral off campus. This would help contain cost and provide more care to students in house, in addition to having M.D. oversight.”
In addition to changes in physical health staff, Bishop will also be adding a new mental health counselor as a response to student demand and long wait times for appointments.
“Schools that are in more urban areas, Portland schools for example, can rely on their community to handle some of the overflow,” Thomson said. “Salem is just strapped for providers in a way it isn’t for physical health.”
Ideally, this will cut down the wait times to see a counselor at Bishop and distribute the workload more effectively in a way that also benefits students.
“Improving mental health services is really important, and I’m excited that we’re taking this opportunity to hire another counselor,” Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) President Jack Wellman said.
Additionally, as with before, Bishop will be accessible to all currently enrolled Willamette students regardless of immigration status and — under the student insurance — students with DACA status would receive convenient care at Bishop.
The general gist of the plan is that, with the implementation of this increase in the student fee, Bishop will be functioning much the same way it was before services were cut. The reason Bishop services were cut in the first place was in large part due to an issue in retaining staff, with the salaries available to health professionals not being competitive.
“Before we were paying below market rate, so in our budget development we made sure we were at least hitting that,” Vice President for Student Affairs Edward Whipple said. “Everybody’s looking for healthcare providers today, so it’s certainly still a challenge.”
According to the proposal, this increase in the student fee should make Bishop a better option for potential hirees.
“It can be a really attractive option for some,” Thomson said. “It’s a really fun population to work with, it’s a relatively healthy population, everybody’s going to have insurance. It can be a really good job for someone in the right circumstances.”
Prior to this announcement, the plan for Bishop was to outsource medical services to Salem Health across the street. This would have required students to go through their insurance to get care, increasing costs and eliminating the elements of privacy afforded by Bishop. While the possibility of raising student fees as a method of bringing back Bishop was posed last semester, it was deemed an unattainable solution by the University. In a letter from Whipple sent in October of 2017 it was explained that raising fees would be complicated by 1) the long term implications of offering subsidized health services at Willamette and 2) the increasing costs of healthcare in America.
At the Nov. 30 ASWU meeting attended by Whipple, he explained that he was confident that potential models on what the Salem Health partnership would look like would be released within that week. Upon reviewing Salem Health’s options however, it was determined that a conservative proposal to raise the student fee could create a sustainable method of providing care in-house.
In addition to the infeasibility of a partnership, the decision to raise the fee was also spurred by clear student demand.
“The student voice was critical in bringing this issue to the administration and prioritizing affordable care options,” ASWU President Jack Wellman said.
The loss of physical health services at Bishop and the ramifications this would have for sexual health needs, privacy, DACA students and other factors were immediately voiced as concerns by the community.
“It shows that if you work on things together you can really get things done,” Whipple said. “We got to where we are today with good input from students trying to help us solve this as opposed to battling.”
These were concerns that were in discussion since the service cuts were announced early last semester.
“Someone may ask: why didn’t you just do this in the first place?” Whipple said. “But we really owed it to the students and it’s our responsibility as a University to explore all options because we didn’t know what was out there. I feel comfortable where we are now because we studied a lot and had a lot of discussion looking at a lot of different options.”
This plan will be discussed at the next Board of Trustees meeting in February along with the rest of the University’s budget, to be voted upon in May. In the meantime, the hope is that students will give feedback on the proposal for when it is presented to the Board in May. Both Whipple and Thomson will be attending the Feb. 8 ASWU meeting, which will be open for anyone to attend and will include a public comment section where attendees can express questions and concerns. Students are also encouraged to send feedback to the address email@example.com.
The hope is that this plan will give Bishop some much needed stability, for both students and staff.
“Our staff have just been constant professionals. I have been so impressed with their dedication to the students. It’s been a stressful time, but they have just been such professionals and I’m so grateful for them,” Thomson said.
You can learn more about the proposal at willamette.edu/go/wellness-fee, as well as at the Feb. 8 ASWU meeting.