Under fire, Oberlin shifts gears on student healthcare provider
The Oberlin College community learned Sunday via a local news report that the university was outsourcing all of its student health services to a Catholic-run health care agency that would only prescribe birth control pills with “medical indications.” . But on Tuesday, after facing an onslaught of criticism, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced the college was changing course and partnering with a local family planning clinic to provide reproductive health services, including birth control. births, to students.
The local family planning clinic will be on site in Oberlin three days a week, and the college plans to transport students to the clinic the other two days.
The move comes after the premises Chronicle-Telegram reported on Oberlin’s partnership with Harness Health Partners, a division of Catholic health system Bon Secours Mercy Health, which operates a hospital in town. The college has worked with Harness Health for the past two years to conduct on-campus COVID testing and contracted with the vendor earlier this summer to run the campus clinic for the upcoming academic year.
College officials said last week that the change would not affect birth control prescriptions or the Plan B morning-after pill, but a Bon Secours spokeswoman told the local newspaper that birth control would not be affected. prescribed only for “medical indications”, rather than just for contraception. Additionally, the Plan B pill would only be given to victims of sexual assault, the spokeswoman said.
A spokesperson for Bon Secours mentioned Inside Higher Education in Oberlin.
Oberlin’s partnership with the Catholic health agency has been downright critical on social media after the Chronicle-Telegram the article was published. Students returned to campus this week and will begin classes on Thursday.
To cut costs, colleges nationwide have outsourced college health programs, reduced clinic hours and staff, and closed pharmacies.
“Outsourcing has proven to be a hotly debated topic, but as colleges and universities face growing regulatory, programmatic, and financial pressures, a growing number of institutions are considering alternative approaches to delivering a comprehensive program of college health,” the American College Health Association said. stated in its May 2019 guidelines on outsourcing.
While outsourcing campus health isn’t new, navigating a post-Roe environment is. Many colleges and universities are grappling with new state laws that restrict abortion access. In Ohio, abortion is illegal at six weeks gestation or when a fetal heartbeat is detected.
After the United States Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, Oberlin President Ambar pledged to continue addressing the reproductive health needs of students, faculty, and staff. Ambar also joined a roundtable on abortion with Vice President Kamala Harris earlier this month.
“At this singular time, higher education has a responsibility to help America lead a more civil dialogue about a woman’s right to make decisions about her own health care and, dare I say, about fairness itself,” she said at the time.
Ambar said in a statement Tuesday that Bon Secours had informed the college “through media reports and emails” that its position on birth control for the purposes of contraception and caregiving affirming the gender had changed since Oberlin’s first conversations with Harness Health Partners.
“While we were disappointed with this change so close to the start of the semester, we acted quickly to ensure our students’ needs were met without disruption,” the statement said. “Our solution was to turn to another partner with whom we had an established working relationship.
Harness Health will still provide basic health care services to Oberlin students, while Lorain County Family Planning Services will cover reproductive health care services. This includes offering gender-affirming care and distributing contraceptives and medications such as Plan B. The family planning clinic also plans to offer telemedicine visits, according to the statement.
“Oberlin already hosts three vending machines that dispense condoms,” according to Ambar’s statement. “We are exploring the possibility of placing vending machines on campus that would dispense Plan B and other contraceptives.”
Ambar reiterated that equitable access to reproductive health is a personal and institutional value.
“I want to assure our students and parents, faculty, staff and alumni that we will have a layered approach to student care that will include the full range of reproductive health services our students deserve,” she wrote.
For former student health workers, Tuesday’s announcement is welcome but could have been avoided had administrators spoken with clinic workers.
“I think they made the wrong decision choosing Mercy,” said Aimee Holmes, a former women’s health specialist at Student Health Services. “I don’t think they were thinking about reproductive health issues.”
Oberlin first outsourced its student health services a year ago when it contracted with Cleveland University Hospitals — a move the college said was tied to increased demand for services during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the campus newspaper. (The college has also outsourced catering and custodial operations in recent years.) Students have complained about long wait times and a lack of appointments after transitioning.
Holmes remained with Student Health Services during the shift to University Hospitals, but said she had no opportunity to apply for a job with Harness Health Partners because her position had essentially been eliminated.
Erin Gornall, a registered nurse who served as a clinical coordinator for student health services, had a similar experience.
Gornall and Holmes said that as part of the teaching hospitals, Oberlin Student Health Services had six employees. Under Harness Health, the clinic has only three staff members and no registered nurses. The two said they asked but never got an answer as to why Oberlin changed the students’ healthcare provider.
Gornall said she feared Roe’s reversal combined with the switch to Harness Health would mean students wouldn’t get the reproductive health care they needed.
Over the past year, Student Health Services has added birth control pills to its on-site pharmacy to make it easier for students to access them. The clinic also offered free Plan B pills to students, no questions asked. The two hope that with the intervention of family planning services, students will continue to receive the services they need.
“We want to make sure that [students are] get the services they need, even if that doesn’t include us, because that’s what we all love to do,” Gornall said.