Free No Longer

Rowan University will start charging insurance plans for health services, a shift that leaves some worried that the additional costs will deter students in need.

April 10, 2018
 
Rowan University's Wellness Center

Rowan University’s decision to discontinue largely free health services for students, including counseling, has spurred the ire of many on campus.

The New Jersey public institution will bill students’ insurance plans (or in the case of many undergraduate students, their parents’ plans), and will begin charging students or their families a copay.

Administrators have touted the move as easing health care access for students while avoiding expenses that would be passed on to all students in higher tuition and fees. But some students are convinced that going through insurance will do away with a level of privacy that they have enjoyed. Because of the way insurance companies report, parents would now know their children were seeing a counselor or being tested for a sexually transmitted infection, for instance, which could deter students from using the health center.

And the university is still figuring out a lot of the finer points of this plan, which takes effect in August.

“Health issues for students between the ages of 18 to 25 have increased in terms of volumes and intensity, and we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” said David Rubenstein, Rowan’s vice president for health and wellness.

Rowan's approach is unusual among colleges and universities, which generally rely on traditional operating dollars to fund their health centers, as is the case at Rowan. Just about 4 percent of institutions across the country use a third-party payment for counseling services, according to a recent survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

Rowan has developed significantly in the last nine years, administrators said in interviews, jumping from 10,000 students to roughly 18,000 or so, with 14,000 undergraduates. Generally, collegiate health associations have reported that campus wellness centers across the country are overburdened. With the growth at Rowan comes the need for additional staffers and, in turn, more money, though students were promised their tuition would be capped, administrators said.

Instead of raising the costs for all students across campus, the university will charge only the students who take advantage of the services, said spokesman Joe Cardona. The institution will find a way to help students who can't afford it.

Right now, the university is still figuring out how much students would be charged for copays, which might range between $5 and $15 but could be more, depending on the insurance plans, Rubenstein said. Administrators also haven’t determined how to best help low-income students, and haven’t nailed down the metric by which students might prove they can’t pay for services. Cardona said students who receive federal aid could obviously show their status, but other students who appear to be in decent financial shape might not be.

The university will also need to teach students how to deal with insurance, which Cardona described as a “culture change.” He acknowledged that some students were concerned by the idea their parents could see on the explanation of benefits forms what services they used and were working with insurance companies on that front.

“There’s a different process -- we’re going to have to work to navigate that,” Cardona said. He said that while the university never held forums to field opinions on possible changes, administrators had “informal” conversations with students and knew it would be controversial.

Before the billing shift comes in August, the campus wellness center, housed in a building that was renovated in 2013 to the tune of $4.5 million, will join with Rowan Medicine, the physicians’ practice group within the School of Osteopathic Medicine, as of July.

College leaders said they are confident this merger would offer a wider array of health services. Some of the money generated from billing insurance companies could be invested back into the health center, too, though Rubenstein said this would not drastically increase the center’s $2.4 million budget.

Online, students have lambasted the university -- some fretting about the possible privacy implications, others about the possibility of expensive copays. Representatives from college health associations didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether this was the ideal model.

Local press has reported student government leaders oppose the coming changes.

"Even a perceived financial barrier at the Wellness Center may have a negative impact on the lives of students who may be less willing to go seek help," Rbrey Singleton, president-elect of Rowan's Student Government Association, told NJ.com.

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