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New committees formed to assess proposed changes to UHS

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

A special committee composed of University of Massachusetts administrators and University Health Services officials, student representatives and staff physicians will review a set of proposed changes to UHS’ operations, which have drawn criticism and protests since the plans were announced in November.

The committee, headed by Associate Chancellor Susan Pearson, will evaluate ways of improving the financial health of UHS, including alternatives to the staffing cuts, potential pharmacy closure and reductions to operating hours already proposed.

A second committee will form to study possible changes to the Student Health Insurance Plan. The formation of that committee was announced on Jan. 17. The committee, also to be headed by Pearson, will discuss benefits and the means of paying for those benefits, including premiums, copays, and coinsurance fees like the one recently introduced for specialist and off-campus care.

The SHIP committee will include UHS Executive Director Bernette Melby, UHS Associate Director Donna Yezierski, several officials from the UMass president’s office, Budget Director Andrew Mangels and officials from the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate.

The UHS review committee was announced Dec. 21 by a mass email to the campus community from Chancellor Robert Holub. The email laid out the reasoning for the committee’s formation, promising an “open and inclusive” discussion of the changes. It also detailed the composition of the committee, which, in addition to Pearson, will include Executive Director Melby, Associate Director Yezierski, and Director of External Relations and University Events Nancy Buffone.

Although the December email stated that the appointments would be completed soon, a majority of the committee – including the representatives from the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate, as well as UHS staff members and physicians – have yet to be named. The date of the first meeting is also still unannounced.

“The final composition of the committee is not settled,” said UMass News and Media Relations Director Ed Blaguszewski. “We are now meeting to solidify appointments … it’s a priority, obviously, for the beginning of the semester.”

Blaguszewski attributed the unfinished state of the committee to the difficulties of contacting people, particularly the planned student representatives, during winter break.

The original proposal called for the reduction of night, holiday and weekend hours at UHS, the closing of the UHS pharmacy, a decrease in on-site laboratory testing and the elimination of 21.5 full time positions – approximately 10 percent of the UHS staff.

The announcement of these cuts was met with criticism and protest from student groups. In November, a march organized by the Graduate Employee Organization drew approximately 100 people to the doors of UHS, where demonstrators shouted slogans and decried what they saw as unnecessary reductions in services and the shifting of costs to students and graduate employees.

“We were in the dark,” said a UHS clinician, who requested anonymity from the Collegian. “No one [on the medical staff] has voiced any favorable opinion of the change. I think the changes are so bad I don’t care if it benefits me because it’ll make it harder to care for my patients.” The staff member stated that the original proposal was announced to UHS staff just days before its release to the campus community, without input from clinicians. The staffer also expressed concern over the effects of the changes, pointing to the possible negative effects of reduced hours and how the closure of the pharmacy might prevent UHS from offering vaccinations.

The staffer offered a more optimistic assessment of the review committee. “My sense of it is that the committee is really going to look at it … it’s not going to be a rubber stamp.”

Administration officials defended the proposal as a necessary step towards funding the renovation or replacement of outdated and poorly maintained healthcare facilities, as well as a part of a federally directed transition to electronic medical records.

“If you look at the [primary UHS building,] it’s more than 50 years old, it has a significant amount of deferred maintenance … it’s just an old, antiquated building,” said Blaguszewski.

“[These changes] in services and hours will save $1 million annually and allow UHS to provide high-quality healthcare in a financially responsible manner,” wrote Daly in a December letter to the Collegian. “This includes renovation or replacement of aging facilities that must occur to meet modern standards.”

Including revenue increases from the recent introduction of co-insurance fees for the Student Health Insurance Plan, the changes could save millions that Daly has said are necessary to fund a replacement building for Health Services. As an auxiliary service, like Residential Life and Dining Services, UHS does not receive funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; rather, it relies on insurance payments and the student health fee, which according to Blaguszewski has not been raised in five years.

Dan Glaun can be reached at dglaun@student.umass.edu.

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