Greed, deception, and student health care

By Mike Tudoreanu

Collegian file photo

A few days ago, the University of Massachusetts community received an email from Bernette Daly, the executive director of University Health Services (UHS). She informed us that UHS will be closing its pharmacy, that it will provide far fewer services and that it will drastically cut back its hours of operation. UHS will no longer be open at all during weekends when school is not in session, and even when it is in session, the new weekend hours will be noon to 4 p.m. Also, the closing time on school weekdays will be moved to 8 p.m. And what is the purpose of all this? To increase the UHS surplus by $1 million every year. So if you get sick over the weekend, or at night, and you have nowhere to go, take comfort in the knowledge that your suffering is all for the greater good of UHS’s bottom line.

Haven’t we heard this all before?

Over the summer, UHS officials used the same excuse to gut the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), which provides health insurance to graduate students and many low-income undergraduates. Starting this school year, students on SHIP only have “co-insurance” as opposed to full insurance, which means they need to pay 15 percent of all medical expenses incurred outside of UHS. That can easily add up to thousands of dollars per year for people who have chronic health problems or suffer accidents. And since most of the students on SHIP make less than $16,000 a year, the results are crippling. Now that UHS will be closed most of the time and will provide fewer services, students on SHIP may well end up having to pay hundreds of dollars even for routine care – women are already forced to do that, since UHS has no OB/GYN on staff.

Presumably, after another few years of this, UHS will only be open five minutes a day and our insurance will only cover Band-Aids and cough drops. And since UMass students are forbidden to enroll in Commonwealth Care – no matter how poor they are – they’ll have no choice but to take those Band-Aids and hold broken bones together with those and duct tape. Perhaps we will see a rebirth of good old fashioned 19th century-style naval surgery – the type where patients drink copious amounts of alcohol to dull the pain, and then bite down on some chewing leather before their legs are sawed off.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that UHS is forcing people who are sometimes living below the poverty line to pay up to a third of their income for health care, it’s not even clear why the millions of dollars in “savings” are needed or what they’re going to be used for. Daly has been constantly changing her story, and keeps coming up with new excuses after the old ones turn out to have been false.

She has already gone through three different excuses since the summer.

Excuse No. 1 was that it was necessary for UHS to reduce costs because they had a deficit of almost half a million dollars last year. After a short investigation by the Graduate Student Organization, it turned out that the only reason for the deficit was because UHS had spent over $1.1 million on the “R&R Contribution,” which means large one-time expenses like repairs to the building or large equipment purchases. In other words, it was a one-time event that will not be repeated in the coming years. In fact, UHS had accumulated more than enough surplus over the past few years to fully cover this deficit and still have plenty of money left over. Over the past three years, UHS ran an average surplus of over $330,000 per year. There is absolutely no basis for the claim that UHS needs more money. They were already making enough money before this summer.

Excuse No. 2 was that premiums for students would have gone up too much if they kept the old plan. This also turned out to be false. In fact, if we kept the exact same plan as last year, with no changes, premiums would have only gone up by 0.4 percent (which comes down to $11 per year per student). Daly claimed that students would prefer the “co-insurance” to paying the higher premiums. Maybe she could actually ask us next time before she assumes that we’d rather risk thousands of dollars in hospital expenses than pay an extra $11 per year.

Excuse No. 3 – the one being used right now – is the most ridiculous of all. UHS claims that although they were making a few hundred thousand dollars a year in surplus before 2011, they need to make much more. In fact, they need to make millions every year. And why is that? Because, apparently, they want to save up money to build a new UHS building some time down the line, maybe a couple of decades from now. So their plan is to squeeze thousands of dollars out of precisely those students who are most in need – that is, low-income students with serious health problems – to pay for some new building in the distant future. The sheer immorality and utter lack of basic human decency exhibited by Daly and her associates is astounding.

I suggest that Daly should find new employment in an industry more suited to her interests and talents. For example, I am sure Bank of America is always looking for someone who can help them cut costs by throwing people out of their homes. Then perhaps we can hire a new director of UHS who is actually interested in providing health care.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]