UAF's health center fee a mandate, but some students aren't buying it

Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Reporter
April 3, 2012

For students, college can be stressful enough without getting sick. Between midterms, finals and the stress of applying for graduation or internships, who’s got time for the flu? When homework has to take a backseat to health care, the Student Health and Counseling Center provides busy students with a nearby option – for a price.

UAF students taking nine or more credits have paid a health center fee since 1974. Back then, the fee was $40. Since 2008, the health center fee has been $105 per semester. Both UAA and UAS have similar fees. The fee is optional for students taking between six and eight credits.

While the fee is one of the largest paid by students, Health Center Director BJ Aldrich said it’s necessary to maintain the quantity and quality of services the center provides.

Keeping UAF healthy

Students can find a variety of medical and counseling services at the health center. Students who’ve paid the fee can receive physicals, STD screenings, pregnancy tests, immunizations and contraceptives at little or no cost. The center also provides non-emergency injury and illness treatment.

On the counseling side, each fee-paying student is entitled to six free counseling sessions per semester. The center provides individual, couple’s and group therapy with four staff counselors. The center also stocks drugs and medical supplies, from amoxicillin to wrist splints.

From Aug. 31, 2010 to Aug. 30, 2011, the health center saw 5,542 appointments. That includes medical and counseling appointments. 

Students who purchased the university health insurance pay nothing when seen at the health center. Students without the insurance are expected to pay a copay, which varies depending on the service provided.

How can the health center afford to offer everything at such low cost?

They can’t.

Subsidized healthcare

The 2011-2012 health center budget projects that it will receive approximately $975,000 in fee revenue for the academic year. In addition, student insurance provider United Healthcare pays the center a $35,000 fee to offset the cost of processing student claims. Add the money students pay for services, medication and medical supplies and the center’s total revenue reaches slightly more than $1.1 million. That’s not quite enough to pay the center’s staff.

The center pays for employee continuing education, lab fees for tests that can’t be done on-site, electronic medical records and medical supplies. Then there’s the cost of keeping the center functioning: phone lines, postage and office supplies. When all that is factored in, the health center will lose around $200,000 this year. That’s where the state comes in.

Every year, the state makes up the difference to keep the center in the black. This academic year, the health center received $200,700 in appropriations from the state general fund. With the state subsidy and the mandatory student fee, the center can afford to provide low-cost treatment, Aldrich said. But there are many students paying the fee right now who may not need to.

Fee waiver

Jeff Bushke is a 23-year veteran of the Army. He served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971, then re-enlisted in 1985. He retired as a sergeant first class in 2005. Now he’s a UAF senior majoring in journalism.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs rated Bushke as 70 percent disabled. As such, he has full medical benefits. He can visit Fort Wainwright’s hospital at no cost. When Bushke got his spring semester bill, he wasn’t pleased with all the fees he saw. The health center fee in particular stood out, he said.

“I’ll never use the facility,” Bushke said. “I’ve got too many other options.” Bushke went to the business office and asked for the fee to be removed. The office refused, he said.

If students pay for the university insurance plan, they must pay the health center fee as well. That’s the only way the health center can keep the insurance plan costs down, Aldrich said.

Only students who live and take classes off of the main campus can receive a fee waiver. Generally, that means students who take all of their classes online or at the UAF Community and Technical College downtown.

Bushke appealed his case to ASUAF President Mari Freitag.

Freitag agreed to advocate on Bushke’s behalf, but she said she was skeptical about his chances.

“I told him not to get his hopes up,” Freitag said.

A few days later, the health center contacted Bushke and told him the fee would be waived. Freitag called helping Bushke the most meaningful thing she’s done for an individual student since becoming president. While she feels students who live on campus should have to pay the fee, Freitag said, Bushke’s actions were commendable. “People should stir the pot every once in a while.”

Bushke hopes other students follow his example, he said.

“There’s lots of other folks that are pretty much in the same situation I am,” he said. In addition to veterans and active-duty military and their families, Alaska Native and Native American students can also receive free medical treatment off-campus.

Bushke said the fee didn’t impact him personally, since he’s attending school on government benefits.

 “I don’t really have a dog in this fight,” he said.

What bothered him was the principle of the matter. Students who will never use and do not need a service should not have to pay the fee associated with that service, Bushke said.

Fair play

All fee waiver requests go to Aldrich. The waivers are given at her discretion. She said she considers them on a case-by-case basis, but grants “maybe one or two a year.”

If a student applies for a waiver and is denied, the student can appeal by going to the next level. In this case, the next step would be Don Foley, the associate vice chancellor for student life. If that fails, students can continue their appeal process all the way up to University President Patrick Gamble.

Aldrich said the health center couldn’t function without the support it receives from fees, even from students who may never use it.

“This is an operational fee, not a user fee,” she said. If the fee isn’t applied evenly, it doesn’t work. “I have to be fair to everybody.”

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2 Responses

  1. January says:

    I have never used the student health center or even know where it is because I live off campus and have insurance through my parents still. BUT I am willing to pay the fee in-case some day I do need to go there for something, its nice to know those services are available to be as a back up. Also because I feel that by paying it I am helping to keep those services affordable to students who REALLY need them. To pay a fee “for the greater good” sounds cliche and pointless, I know, but there are students who might not be able to afford those services from anywhere else, they are people we are friends with, go to class with, and see everyday. I wont be asking for a waiver, sure I could really use $105, who doesn’t? But it doesn’t sound worth my time to go through the university bureaucracy process to get it waived to be honest.

  2. Amanda says:

    Charging people for something they won’t use and don’t need isn’t “being fair to everyone”. It’s wrong. If I live off campus and can show that I already receive the services UAF offers for FREE through my existing (and better) health care insurance, then why should UAF (or any other college) have the right to impose their unnessary medical care on an individual.

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