Wellness Center visits at Rowan University have historically been free for students, but in an attempt to battle the challenges facing the school as the demand for mental-health care grows, students can soon expect to pay a price.
Later this year, Rowan University will begin billing health insurance for Wellness Center visits — meaning patients will be expected to cover a copayment — as the Wellness Center merges with Rowan Medicine, introducing new financial and privacy concerns for students.
Insurance billing is slated to begin Aug. 1. The university says the merger will help to resolve issues such as a semester-long waiting list for mental-health services, a complaint on which students doubled down after a student suicide at the Glassboro campus in December.
Mental-health counseling at Rowan has been in such high demand that the only other choice for students, besides being added to a waiting list, was to take part in group therapy, in which counselors would screen for students who might need further assistance.
Joe Cardona, Rowan vice president of university relations, said it is difficult to identify students in need of more care than the university can provide.
As part of the merger, after an initial visit, students can be referred to one of the nearly 80 offices under the umbrella of Rowan Medicine across the region for their physical or mental-health needs, such as to a psychology practice in Cherry Hill.
"If we feel that this student really needs to be referred, and they happen to live in Cherry Hill, that'll work for them," he said. "Or, the doctor may be asked to come do hours at Rowan X amount of times at our campus at a particular time of day or night."
While university health-care systems around the country are, like Rowan, struggling to meet the demand for counseling, few have added copays. Health-care services at nearby Stockton University and Rutgers-Camden remain free of charge.
The decision to charge students' insurance is an attempt to fulfill the university's promise that tuition would not be raised beyond the rate of inflation, Cardona said.
"Raising tuition for everybody for the Wellness Center is something that some people would advocate for, but there's a lot of people who say they don't use that service," he said.
Jenn Coulter, a 2017 graduate of Rowan, started a petition last week to encourage the university to reverse the plan to introduce insurance billing, garnering more than 700 signatures.
Like other students, Coulter partly blames the university's inability to offer easily accessible services on its rapid growth within the last few years.
In 2013, Rowan's president, Ali A. Houshmand, created a 10-year plan to increase full-time undergraduate enrollment by nearly 30 percent, setting a goal of 12,000 full-time undergraduates by the 2023-24 academic year through controlled growth.
But this academic year, Rowan has full-time undergraduate enrollment of more than 15,000 students, significantly surpassing the original goal in just five years.
"If you were going to expand other parts of the school, and you didn't have a plan for your Wellness Center for your current students' well-being and health care, you know you shouldn't have gone this far with expansion," Coulter said.
"When I was a student, I didn't have any money," she said. "I was having a hard time buying food for myself throughout the week, so even a small charge I wouldn't have entertained."
Cardona stressed that no student will be denied treatment based on ability to pay, and a student who cannot afford the copay on the spot can fill out a hardship form. If the student qualifies, the copay will be waived. If not, it can be paid later or applied to the term bill — meaning it can show up as a financial hold, which can bar students from registering for classes or graduating. In emergency situations, the student will be taken care of right away, with billing being sorted out later, he said.
Cardona acknowledged that details concerning hardship forms and student privacy are still being decided.
"We know of students who on paper appear as though they are financially set, but in reality they are not," he said. "Across the country, there are students who skip their meals. Even with the hardship cases — those, we're going to have to work out."
William Reichard, a sophomore studying civil and environmental engineering at Rowan, said he has always had to schedule an appointment with the Wellness Center days in advance, making it impractical for treating more severe issues.
The copay, he said, would be an even greater drawback.
"The fight for equality for all is very prominent on the national level in 2018," he said. "With that in mind, it is counterproductive for Rowan University to create a new form of inequality among students."
Besides the potential financial hardship, students are concerned that fewer people will seek help if privacy becomes a concern.
"If you go through the insurance provider, they said, well, all of this will be confidential — except that there is an EOB, the explanation of benefits, that the insurance provider will be entitled to," Coulter said. "Translation: It'll be kind of confidential unless your parents really want to know what the charge is from."
She said students who are already worried or anxious will be further deterred from seeking services at the Wellness Center if there's even the slightest threat of the visit not being private.