UM health center to be privatized

Posted Sept. 30, 2008, at 9:16 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Citing concerns over student access to health care as well as budgetary issues, the University of Maine this week announced it will turn over operation of the campus clinic, Cutler Health Center, to a private health care provider. The plan calls for expanded hours at the health center, more payment options for students, and a higher-profile role for health professionals on campus.

The change will affect a number of university employees who work at the center, including both members and nonmembers of the University of Maine unit of the Maine Education Association, the professional union that represents university employees.

Privatization has been under discussion for about two years. An initial request for proposals in January 2007 yielded three responses from area primary care provider groups. A refined request, to be issued soon to the three providers, will determine which group will be selected. A transition could be completed as soon as the end of this year.

The three competing responders cannot be identified for proprietary reasons, a university spokesman said Tuesday.

Of primary concern, according to university officials, is the Cutler Health Center’s inability to bill insurance companies for the services it provides. Only the university’s own insurance program, primarily used by graduate students, now is accepted at Cutler; all other users must pay cash. Even coverage by MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, is useless at the center, which provides X-ray and laboratory services in addition to medical exams and consultation.

Robert Dana, vice president for student affairs, said the university can’t afford the expense of hiring and training additional staff to manage the complexities and frustrations of third-party billing. There is also the possibility that doing so would require the health center to open its doors to anyone with coverage, instead of just the student population it serves, he said.

Dana said most undergraduate students seek health care off-campus because they’re covered by private insurance. That means the Cutler center doesn’t get the business it needs to stay in operation and also deprives students of the comprehensive services they should have access to on the campus of a major university, he said.

“This isn’t just a doctor’s office we want,” Dana stressed. A campus-based health center should offer a wide range of services, he said, including immunization clinics, campuswide wellness programs and outreach services to residence halls, international student programs and other groups.

As it is, said Janet Waldron, vice president for administration and finance, hours of operation at the Cutler Health Center have been curtailed to save money. It is closed evenings, weekends, during school breaks and for the entire month of July, even though students may need services during those times, she pointed out.

Cutler’s budget runs about $2.5 million a year, about half coming from UMaine’s operations budget and the other half from student fees paid at the beginning of each semester. Waldron said preliminary discussions with three interested health care groups in the area indicate they could provide comprehensive clinical and administrative services — including billing insurance companies and meeting the stringent patient privacy standards demanded by state and federal regulations — at no cost to the university.

“We’re looking at a savings [from the university’s operations budget] of over $1 million a year,” she said.

The Cutler Health Center currently provides employment to the equivalent of 21 full-time workers, including health care professionals and support staff, according to Steven Weisberger, assistant vice president for human resources.

“There have been rumors [Cutler Health Center] is going to shut down,” he said. “That was never considered.” In reality, he said, employees, union representatives and university officials have negotiated a “seamless transition” for employees, some of whom have worked at the health center for more than 20 years.

One employee has been there for more than 40 years, he added.

Kerry Sullivan, president of the Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association, an affiliate of the Maine Education Association, said that “everyone was given a chance to be at the table” when negotiations were taking place. While several alternatives have been considered, Kerry said, the final agreement allows Cutler Health Center employees to be terminated with earned severance pay when the new provider group takes over. Those who wish to apply for a job with the new group will have to go through the application and interview process.

“Everyone was satisfied with the agreement,” Sullivan said.

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