After three years of talking about the future of health care on campus, the university has begun discussions with Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center on a proposal that would expand services to students and staff but also require they break out their wallets.
Currently, the university spends about $300,000 per year providing health services to students and employees, who do not pay for care. “Right at present, the university is paying 100 percent of the total cost, even for those people who have insurance,” said university trustee Randy Jones, who chairs an ad hoc committee on health services.
But the administrators expect a new system proposed by RMC not to cost the university anything. “We need it to be self-sufficient,” said university Provost Rebecca Turner.
Under the current proposal, the health services would be funded through a more traditional billing model, both to insurance companies and patients, said David McCormack, RMC’s chief executive officer.
A survey conducted during the last school year showed that about 20 percent of students do not have health insurance, and McCormack said part of the ongoing discussions with the university includes figuring out how to serve those students.
“We’re working with the university on how we can handle that,” he said. “We think we have a solution; we’re going to take care of everybody.”
As the trustees and administrators searched for an organization to help expand health services to the university community, they wanted a partner. According to Jones, that’s what they found in RMC.
An ad hoc health services committee recommended RMC to the full board of trustees Monday over three other responders: St. Vincent’s St. Clair in Pell City, Riverview Regional Medical Center in Gadsden, and Dr. Charles Williams of Alabama Medical Services.
“We’re looking forward to working with RMC to advance this (expansion) and the university,” he said.
The proposals came in from the health providers in mid-September and were reviewed by JSU staff and the ad hoc committee together on Sept. 21.
“Out of those discussions came the recommendation that we explore a discussion with RMC,” Turner said. That discussion began on Oct. 4 and is ongoing.
University President Bill Meehan said he expects the new arrangement to begin for the fall 2013 semester.
A new model
According to Meehan, the university requested to expand services in three main areas —primary care, urgent care and psychiatric counseling. “These are all important areas that our survey we did with our students a year ago said we needed to expand,” he said.
While Meehan emphasized that the university has had excellent care from the physicians it has contracted with since it began offering such services about four decades ago, he said that health care is changing and the university wants to do more.
Areas of likely expansion also include services to dependents of employees and more physician contact hours. Normally doctors are available to see patients 16 hours per week, but that has been reduced to eight hours since two physicians did not renew their contracts with the university this year.
She said the university is currently seeking physicians to fill that gap and has been talking with RMC to help with that issue, which she expects to have resolved in the next few weeks.
McCormack said that such a relationship fits right in with what his hospital already does; RMC serves six counties and has formed a number of partnerships within the region.
RMC’s efforts to ramp up the services offered to students and university employees will happen in steps, he said. Initially, RMC will upgrade the university’s on-campus facility and could possibly replace some facilities down the road, McCormack said.
Although Williams Student Health Center — a small brick house sitting in the shadows of Sparkman Hall — could use some work, McCormack said he intends to keep the people who staff it just as they are.
“They have some great people … providing services there,” he said. “We want to keep the people they have and expand on that.”
RMC already has a clinic in Jacksonville which operates during the evening and will be able to provide most services on site for those who need access to care after the campus clinic has closed.
The local clinic was very appealing to the university, Jones said. “RMC is just down the street with the facility,” he said. “We’re actually going to be able to have 24-7 (care) for our students.”
University administrators still want significant services to be provided on campus, but, Turner said, “we are aware that it’s handy for referrals to be made to the center.”
For any serious issues, advanced equipment or emergencies, members of the university community would go to the main hospital in Anniston, McCormack said.
Clinics’ role on campuses
While referrals to outside facilities will certainly be easier under the new model, Turner said the university wants students, employees and employees’ dependents to be able to get significant amounts of services at the Williams Center.
On-campus clinics can be integral in student success, according to Anita Barkin, immediate past president of the American College Health Association.
“Because we are a part of the campus community,” he said, “the academic missions on the campuses we work on resonate with us as part of our mission … to help them be successful in their academic program by providing the physical and mental health support services they need so they can continue to study.”
With upcoming changes in the health care industry due to the Affordable Care Act, student health services may become increasingly important to the overall system, she said.
“Student health services can be part of the plan to relieve some of the burden off the community health centers that are going to be impacted by more folks trying to access health care because they have insurance,” she said. “Rather than increasing the burden, we can be decreasing the burden.”
While there has been talk at the university about creating a new facility for health services, that is not something that will happen in the near future, Meehan said. He said he believes the current building meets the needs of a student population the size of JSU’s — more than 9,100.
Looking at a new facility to house health services is something “we would consider down the road,” he said. “Maybe opportunities would present themselves.”
Star staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.