University Health Center

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln student walks into the University Health Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012.

KRISTIN STREFF/Journal Star file photo

A proposal to privatize the University Health Center could bring an end to three health programs offered at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, including an HIV-testing center and a discount drug program.

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman announced plans Tuesday to seek a private vendor to build and operate a new health center. The university proposes it would be constructed by 2014 at the former Textron Corp. building on the northeast corner of Antelope Valley Parkway and Vine Street.

Health center staff said they were surprised on Tuesday when two university vice chancellors informed them of Perlman’s plans.

“It was a heavy heart day,” said Suzanne Forkner, lead wellness educator.

The university set an Oct. 5 deadline for bids and expects to receive approval for the project from the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in January.

The university would hand over operation of the health center to the private provider about May 1. The university has written into its request for proposals a requirement that the chosen provider keep the health center’s nearly 100 current employees on its payroll for at least 90 days after the effective date of the contract.

However, the likelihood that a private corporation could take over the health center has raised concerns for at least three programs currently offered, including the HIV-testing program, a health and wellness education program and a discount drug program.

The HIV-testing program is funded by an in-kind grant that includes materials necessary for testing given by the state and space for the testing provided by the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. The health center provides the staff.

A second program, the Personal Responsibility Education Program, currently teaches some 55 minority, first-generation students health and wellness skills. The program is funded by a $200,000, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“These are grants that only not-for-profit or educational institutions are able to apply for,” said Lee Heerten, wellness educator for the health center. “It’s our understanding as well that they can’t be subcontracted.”

By handing over operation of the center to a private vendor, the university likely would have to give up those grants, unless it found a way to offer the programs outside of the vendor’s contract, Heerten said.

Currently, the university isn’t planning to operate the health education and outreach program, which administers the two grant-funded programs, separate from its contract with a private vendor. The university does plan to continue operating separate counseling and psychological services programs.

A third health center program likely to disappear as a result of privatization is a discount drug program operated through a 30-state consortium of government entities. The program offers students, faculty and staff discounted prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

James Guest, director of the health center, said he is researching the experiences of other universities that have privatized their health centers.

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“I wanted to know the good experiences, the bad experiences, the pros and the cons so that as we evaluate and move forward we’re going to give the provider, the process, the greatest chance of succeeding,” he said.

Asked about the likely effects of privatization on the health center, Guess declined to speculate.

“It is really difficult to project, because we don’t know what the proposals are going to be,” he said.

Perlman said Tuesday that connecting the health center to a larger health care organization could allow the university to take advantage of scale in purchasing and improved regulation compliance and give students access to a broader range of medical services. He said privatization also could reduce the cost of medical care to students and avoid increasing student fees to pay to replace the university’s outdated health center.

The existing 45,000-square-foot health center was built in 1957 and had nearly 47,000 student visits last fiscal year. Student fees and direct payments made up most of the health center’s nearly $10 million budget in fiscal year 2011.

As he prepared to seek care at the health center Wednesday, mechanical engineering student Eric Fritz said he hopes privatization won't change the payment arrangement.

“It’s nice having this free option here,” he said. “I don’t know where else to go for health care.”

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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