Officials will increase the number of free mental health sessions and require student health insurance next academic year – part of the largest overhaul of student health since the Colonial Health Center opened more than three years ago.
The University announced a series of changes Monday that will be implemented next academic year, including a mandate that undergraduates buy into the student health insurance plan or provide proof that they already have insurance, doubling the number of free mental health sessions, moving to an electronic record-keeping system and hiring a dietician to provide nutritional advice.
The CHC, based in the Marvin Center, will also expand to include more counseling offices and lab spaces and begin offering services on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.
Officials and student leaders said the change will make the CHC’s services more accessible to students, with the goal of reforming an office that has faced turbulent leadership in recent years and long-running student complaints about high costs and low-quality care.
Danielle Lico, the associate dean of students for student administrative services, said the changes are a “direct result” of student input, and administrators will continue to work with students next year to improve the center.
“These changes, which are just the first of many steps in transforming the Colonial Health Center, are aimed at meeting the evolving health care needs of students,” Lico said in an email.
Implementing a health insurance mandate
When the Student Association and a student health group partnered with administrators to form the Student Health Advisory Council in the fall, they put an overhaul of health insurance at the top of an ambitious list of student priorities.
“Part of our vision in this project was not trying to look at the little things we could just knock out of the way – low-hanging fruit, easy wins and realistic goals, per se,” SA President Peak Sen Chua said. “I think we were looking at systemic change in this health center because this is something that students have been so passionate about for so many years.”
The high cost of student health insurance was highlighted in a March report by a student researcher who found that annual premiums were “exorbitant” compared to peer schools, mostly because the plan was voluntary for students. The opt-in system meant that there weren’t many healthy students in the insurance pool, which drove up the overall cost of the plan.
Under the new plan, undergraduates – except students in the College of Professional Studies – will be automatically enrolled in the University’s student health insurance plan and must submit an opt-out waiver if they already have insurance. The change will slash the annual cost of the health insurance plan from $4,103 to about $2,750 – putting the University on par with its peers that charge an average of about $2,600 for student health insurance.
Previously, only international students and those enrolled in nursing, public health or medical programs were required to purchase health insurance – a rare system compared to GW’s peers, 11 of which mandate that all undergraduates have health plans.
Reed Elman, the SA’s co-director of student health services, said the change makes CHC more accessible because “if you can afford to access care, you’re more likely to access that care and you’re more likely to be healthy.”
Noah Wexler, a member of Care for GW, an organization dedicated to driving down GW’s health insurance costs, said the organization supports the move to the new insurance model, but members are still concerned that the system will force low-income students, who may be uninsured or have a low-grade plan, into a program they can’t afford.
Officials released a list of criteria that outside plans must meet for students to opt out of the University’s student health insurance. If a student doesn’t apply for an insurance waiver, they will be automatically enrolled in the student health plan.
“If there’s no financial aid that helps students who don’t pass the waiver pay the additional cost of $2,750, that could be a major burden on a lot of students, and that could impact enrollment, it could impact graduation rates,” Wexler said.
Lico said by requiring insurance for all students, the University can create a larger pool of healthier students and lower premiums as a result. She said the University anticipates “many families will see reduced out-of-pocket expenses as a result.”
She declined to say what support the University will offer to students who struggle to afford the added cost associated with the insurance mandate.
More free mental health sessions
Students will be able to attend up to 12 hours worth of mental health counseling for free starting in the fall, double the number of free hours currently available to students.
Student leaders have sought to change the policy for years in campaigns for top SA positions. SA Executive Vice President-elect Ojani Walthrust sought to increase the free sessions to 10 hours in his platform this year, and both Chua and current SA Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson pushed for CHC changes last year.
The changes come to an office that has been hit by scandal and accusations of mismanagement in recent years. The former director of Mental Health Services stepped down from his position in 2015 after being found unlicensed to practice as a psychologist in the District and two other staff members were also found to not have licenses.
Officials have sought to offer more funding for Mental Health Services after three student suicides on the Mount Vernon Campus in 2014. The University implemented permanent counseling on the Vern and dedicated a portion of a tuition increase in 2015 specifically to improve mental health resources.
Nelson said because the CHC has relatively no wait times for mental health sessions, students will be able to get both free and quick care under the new plan, putting GW ahead of its peer institutions.
“I think it’s a really unique way for GW to show we’re not just comparing ourselves to our market basket, but we’re trying to be better, and I hope that’s something GW continues to prioritize,” Nelson said.
Lico said the change will bring students more flexibility in determining how best to address concerns they have about their mental health care.
“Students will now be able to have more flexibility with their counselor to determine how to best address their concerns,” she said. “This change is vital to meeting the mental health needs of the campus.”
She declined to say how much money it will cost for the University to offer additional counseling services, but said officials hope an expansion of services will offset lost revenue.
Switch to electronic records
Officials announced last year that they would move to an electronic record-keeping system in the fall amid criticism of the current paper plan, which students and experts said created a lack of communication between clinicians.
Egelman, the former director of the CHC, said the mental health wing of the CHC has been utilizing an electronic records system but that physical health services, which had the capability of implementing such a system, never made the switch. The differing systems meant that physical health staff were not always checking psychiatric records prior to prescribing medication.
“For optimal care, they need to be using the same system,” Egelman said. “If the University is only activating the physical health care side, then that’s not creating the true integrated system that is needed for optimal health care.”
Under the new system, students will be able to log in to an online portal to access their health records, make appointments at the CHC and submit immunizations and health forms, Lico said.
Cara Schiavone, the student researcher who criticized GW’s health insurance costs in a March report, said the move to electronic records will “modernize” the CHC because “it’s a little bit ridiculous that we’re still using paper records.”
“Students will be better able to schedule appointments and have parents enter their vaccination records as well, all of those things, paper health insurance, waived health insurance – it’s nice that it’s all going to be on one platform,” Schiavone said.
Dani Grace, Austin Mistretta, Sarah Roach and Meredith Roaten contributed reporting.