Undergraduate students who receive psychiatric support at Student Health Services may be surprised to find that the formerly free service could now cost them $22 per visit, depending on their insurance.
Previously, psychiatric services at Student Health were free of charge, but since the beginning of Winter Quarter, students without the Undergraduate Student Health Insurance Plan (USHIP) have been charged $22 per visit, the same price as seeing a primary care physician at Student Health.
Student Health Services Director Cynthia Bowers said the change was due to a recent trend within the medical community to give primary care physicians the authority to prescribe medication, such as Prozac, for mental illness. Previously, only psychiatrists could prescribe medicine to help treat mental illnesses.
“There is more mental health medical management being done by primary care physicians now,” she said. “We’re just coming in line with the rest of the community. We’re not doing anything exotic here.”
Bowers said the high amount of psychiatry performed in regular clinics is a result of improved mental health medications that have fewer side effects, but are still affective methods of treatment.
“It’s very unusual for primary care physicians not to be prescribing these drugs,” Bowers said.
Student Health recently received additional university funding for approximately one-half of the annual pay for a psychiatrist because the service was being used so much, and now has five rotating psychiatrists on duty, the equivalent of two full time psychiatrists. Student Health sees approximately 500 different students each year for psychiatric reasons.
Psychiatric services at Student Health also include drug, alcohol and nutritional counseling and prevention, which will continue to be free of charge for students regardless of their insurance.
Approximately 7,800 students currently subscribe to USHIP. Another several hundred are enrolled in Prepaid Access to Healthcare (PATH); these students will not be charged for psychiatric care.
Only students who have insurance outside the university will be affected by the change.
Since Fall 2001, all UC students are required to have insurance, and must either fill out a waiver form or enroll in USHIP at the cost of $459 per year (including the summer), or $153 per quarter.
Students who fill out the waiver have the option of enrolling in PATH for $180 per year, including summer, or $70 per quarter. PATH provides limited coverage of office visits and other services, such as x-rays, but is not a substitute for insurance.
All undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of insurance, pay a Student Health Services quarterly lock-in fee of $12 and $29, respectively. Due to inflation, which Bowers said averages three percent per year, and the problem of staffing during the summer, Student Health will ultimately have to raise visitation fees or increase the lock-in fee. There is a possibility that a lock-in fee increase will appear on the spring campus ballot.
Bowers said that because psychiatric health issues such as headaches and stomachaches are often associated with mental illnesses such as depression, students are often not sure whether their symptoms are a result of physical or mental health problems.
“It was impossible to tease apart what visits were mental health and which ones weren’t,” Bowers said.
Depending on their needs, students pay more for specialty services offered at Student Health.
The psychiatric services were originally free of charge because of the stigma that is often attached to mental illness. While Bowers said the stigma has largely been lifted, Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) member Shaina Walter said the negative associations are still there.
“Because there is such a stigma about mental health, [charges] could be seen as another barrier to treatment,” she said.
However, Walter also said she was surprised when she first learned that students were initially not charged for psychiatric services.
“Whenever you have a doctor seeing someone, a debt is incurred, and you have to pay for that somehow,” she said. “I definitely see both sides of the issue.”
SHAC member Gary Reinecke said that students often suffer because of budget cuts, and that it is unfair to make students to pay for psychiatric services.
“Unfortunately, the UC system does not see the need for student support centers,” he said. “Students are what makes this campus run, what keeps it alive.”