Daily Hampshire Gazette: “UMass scales back health services in cost-cutting move”

UMass scales back health services in cost-cutting move

Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

AMHERST – The health services unit at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will eliminate 10 percent of its work force, losing more than 21 full-time positions, close its pharmacy, reduce laboratory services and scale back evening and weekend hours between now and the end of the academic year.

The changes are intended to save University Health Services about $1 million a year, money that will be used to help offset current operating expenses and fund future facility renovations and technology enhancements, according to UMas[s] officials.

The 21.5 positions affected by the changes are a combination of pharmacy, laboratory and evening and weekend staff, said university spokesman Edward Blaguszewski. It is not clear how many people will lose their jobs, because some positions are now unfilled and others are being vacated through attrition and retirements.

“But it will certainly impact people,” Blaguszewski said.

UHS currently has 219 full-time positions, meaning that the changes will reduce staffing by 10 percent.

University officials say the health services unit has been dealing with increased health costs for many years and ran a half-million-dollar deficit last year. Officials said they also need to plan for new technology, such as electronic medical records, and for upgrades to a facility more than 50 years old. Blaguszewski said the building may be renovated or a new structure may be built, but financing must take place within the parameters of the services’ budget.

The center receives no operating funds and is self-sustaining, meaning that its money comes from insurance company payments and student fees. All students pay a mandatory $654 annual fee to use the center’s services.

United Auto Workers Local 2322, which represents several UMass bargaining units, said the university is making enough money to operate the health center at a profit, and its desire to set aside money for capital improvements is driving the current cost-cutting measures.

“Our concern is that there are ways to fund this through the larger university budgeting process or through a bond … that isn’t funding it on the backs of sick students,” said Ryan Quinn, a UAW services representative and organizer. He agrees, however, that the building is in sad shape.

Quinn is also concerned about a reduction in services that will result from the changes. “The fact that the fees are not covering the same level of service is disappointing to me,” he said.

Detailing the changes

In an Oct. 31 letter to the campus community, UHS Executive Director Bernette Daly announced that the pharmacy would close at the end of the spring semester in May.

That’s also when the volume of laboratory tests performed by an off-site facility will increase. Collection of lab samples and limited testing will still take place at the center.

Blaguszewski said that unlike pharmacies whose financial models are tied to retail operations, the UMass pharmacy is independent and struggles to support itself.

UHS is also reducing its hours. The center is currently open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight.

The changes will be threefold between now and the end of the academic year:

  • During the coming intersession, from Dec. 17 to Jan. 22, UHS will be open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
  • Starting Jan. 23, the center will be open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on weekends from noon to 4 p.m.
  • Beginning May 12, 2012, summer and intersession hours will be Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Additionally, starting this month, UHS will close on holidays when students are not living on campus. This includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day and July Fourth.

Blaguszewski said a recent assessment determined that the services can no longer be provided in a cost-effective manner, and that the number of people using the walk-in clinic in the evening was minimal.

Officials said medical and mental health telephone triage services will remain available around the clock. UHS does not provide emergency services, so those in need of an emergency will still go to a hospital.

Changes to SHIP

The move comes on the heels of another change made this summer to the student health insurance plan, or SHIP. That change was designed to reduce expenses and cover a $500,000 deficit.

It requires the 5,800 students enrolled in the university’s health insurance plan to pay 15 percent of the cost – up to a $5,000 cap – of specialty care and other services not received at the campus health center. The old plan paid the full cost of visits to off-campus specialists.

A number of community and advocacy organizations believe that the SHIP changes violate state law.

A coalition led by Mass[-Care] and UAW filed a complaint in September with the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy. The complaint asks the division to determine whether colleges and universities are allowed under state law to offer SHIP plans that charge co-insurance payments.

Unlike co-payments, which represent a fixed dollar cost per medical service, co-insurance requires students to pay a percentage of the total cost of care.

“People are running up large bills on this,” Quinn said. “We are continuing to fight this, both legally with the state and through activism in the community and on campus.”

University officials believe the plan changes comply with state law and they have been in conversation with state officials about them, Blaguszewski said.

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