BY TIM CARPENTER
TOPEKA — The Kansas Board of Regents tentatively endorsed Thursday formation of a task force to independently examine options for limiting legal risks of operating campus student health centers and for increasing collection of payments from insurance companies for treatment services.
Members of the Board of Regents joined with state university officials to question timing and scope of a proposed review applicable to the public universities based in Lawrence, Manhattan, Wichita, Hays, Pittsburg and Emporia. The initiative was criticized as a drain on personnel at campus health clinics, which presidents of Kansas State University and Pittsburg State University asserted remained under profound stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regent Mark Hutton, of Andover, has campaigned for the inquiry due to concern about escalating student health fees, malpractice liability exposure of university-managed health centers and the longstanding ability of insurance companies to sidestep obligations to cover health care expenditures for students covered by their parents’ health plans.
Originally, Hutton wanted the task force to deliver a set of reform recommendations no later than February. That’s unlikely given the board reacted to criticism by delaying final action on the task force proposal until November.
Hutton said state university students were paying $14 million annually in health fees, while $4 million was derived from health insurance companies and $2 million from student copayments each year. He indicated a much higher portion of costs should be covered by insurance.
“This is not an attack on the quality care that your health care professionals are offering,” Hutton said. “We have a higher responsibility before we just raise student fees.”
The Board of Regents agreed to the concept of a task force evaluation of university clinics, but withheld final approval to provide opportunity for more discussion about boundaries and timeline of the project.
Two retiring presidents of state universities agreed the pandemic wasn’t the right moment to launch such an inquiry.
“Is there a need to do this kind of work?” said PSU president Steve Scott. “There’s not a group on campus that’s been more stretched than our health care centers. This is a tough time to launch a deep dive into their operations.”
KSU president Richard Myers said the university’s health system was responsible for 40 students in quarantine and more than 100 in isolation due to COVID-19. An external investigation sends a negative message to campus health staff at precisely the wrong moment, he said.
“Is this so urgent that we have to do it in the middle of a pandemic?” Myers said. “I wonder about the timing and what that tells health care workers. They are today busting their butts to serve our population.”
In January, the University of Kansas transitioned responsibility for medical management and oversight of Watkins Health Services on campus to the University of Kansas Health System and Lawrence Memorial Hospital Health. KU chancellor Doug Girod said the change would expand care of students and establish a “clear medical-oversight model” at a challenging time for university health facilities.
KU had previously formed a partnership with both health providers to provide medical services to Jayhawk athletes.
“We decided to leverage it more broadly for our student health clinic,” Girod said.
A graphic example of what could go wrong was revealed as Michigan State University paid out more than $500 million since 2016 as part of the criminal scandal involving Larry Nassar, a former sports medicine doctor at MSU who molested young patients. Much of the money paid by Michigan State was allocated to settling lawsuits, but $64 million was dedicated to covering legal costs arising from the case.
Regent Wint Winter, of Lawrence, said the Board of Regents would be commended, even by skeptics of public higher education, for tackling complex issues tied to stewardship of millions of dollars funneled into campus health care. The project can send a message to the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly that members of the board aren’t shy about digging into difficult financial matters, he said.
Given reservations raised about the task force, Winter said, the best course would be to proceed with preliminary work but postpone detailed analytical activity until authorized by the board.
“Delaying this until November is the right thing to do,” said Board of Regents member Allen Schmidt, of Hays.
Hutton said his vision was for the task force to evaluate university student health clinics for efficiency and quality of care. The project should include analysis of student safety, a comparison of public versus private health costs and an assessment of opportunities to capture third-party insurance payments, he said.
Emphasis ought to be placed on medical services available to minority populations and the availability of mental health services, Hutton said.
“We need to make sure we don’t work this with a cookie-cutter approach,” said Richard Muma, president of Wichita State University.