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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Health Center Staff Spread Thin To Meet High Demand, Low Budget

Despite an increase in the health services fee this fall, Western’s Student Health Center employees will still be paid significantly less than others in the field. Dr. Emily Gibson, the director of the Health Center, said additional funding is needed to help alleviate the constant need for clinic employees to work overtime and to increase staff pay.

Gibson said the clinic struggles to make the current funds work and often has to resort to having the doctors and nurses work past their scheduled hours without additional pay.

“Our physician and nurse practitioner providers have salaries as much as 20 percent lower than our peer institutions and 50 percent lower than our private practice colleagues in the community,” Gibson said in an email.  “We choose to work with college students because we truly care about making their academic years as smooth and healthy as possible during a time when stress and exposure to infections is a high risk factor.”

Nurse practitioner Susan Rodgers has been working at the health center for more than 15 years and said she often works more than her scheduled hours at the clinic.

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“There are many, many days that we work extra hours unpaid in order to see all of the patients who seek care and in order to complete our day’s work,” Rodgers said in an email. “Particularly during winter quarter, when the number of patients visits are often increased due to influenza, common cold, mono, strep throat, not to mention snow sport injuries and seasonally affective illness.”

For employees who have agreed to a salary, Gibson says there is no such thing as uncompensated hours or overtime, rather health center employees work “undercompensated” hours.

“Nurse practitioners and physicians are salaried professional staff and not eligible for overtime compensation as we work ‘until the job is done,’” Gibson said. “Some days that can be a 10-plus hour day. We are paid a salary to provide the service needed no matter how long that might take any given day.”

Paul Cocke, Western’s communications and marketing director, confirmed Gibson’s statement.

“A professional exempt staff member at Western, such as me, might work 60 hours in a week and be paid for my regular 40 hours. That does not mean I am not being compensated for the extra 20; it just means I do not get paid extra for working over 40 hours,” Cocke said in an email.

Western’s Board of Trustees voted to increase the university’s health service fee at their June meeting, agreeing to add additional funding for campus health services providers such as the health center.

“Our physician and nurse practitioner providers have salaries as much as 20 percent lower than our peer institutions and 50 percent lower than our private practice colleagues in the community. We choose to work with college students because we truly care about making their academic years as smooth and healthy as possible during a time when stress and exposure to infections is a high risk factor.”

Emily Gibson, WWU Student Health Center Director

According to the budget, the health center will receive $2,334,930 of the Counseling, Health and Wellness Services Fee during the 2017-2018 academic year. This will increase the health center budget by $272,370 to pay for increases in staff salaries and part-time personnel pay.

The fee will increase by $10 per quarter starting in the fall to cover some of these expenses. Doctors and registered nurses will see a 4 percent increase in pay and other employees, such as medical assistants, will receive a 2 percent increase.

According to Dr. Gail Knops, a family physician who has been working at Western’s Student Health Center for the past 14 years, employees often stay late after falling behind in scheduling when appointments take longer than the time allotted. The clinic reserves 15 minutes for each appointment, but the average visit often takes longer.

“Better funding would allow us to expand staffing and hours so that we are able to spend more time per student visit, stay on time and reduce student waits,” Gibson said.

Knops is part of the part-time staff and comes into the clinic when the permanent staff cannot see all patients.

Like Rodgers, she often works more than she is scheduled. However, because of personal scheduling choices, she is paid hourly, and is compensated when she does do overtime work.

“I am not required to do ongoing coverage after hours, but the reality is that the work extends and to complete it up to a standard of care and documentation, it takes additional time,” Knops said in an email.

Knops said the need for more fill-in staff and overtime hours has increased over the years. When she began working at the clinic, she was often called in once a week, but over the years more hours needed to be filled. She has been scheduled regularly for the last ten years.

“I stay. I get paid, but I stay. The clinic closes and it’s not unusual for me to be there for a couple hours after that just because there are still patients here,” Knops said.

Western student James Murray says he has experienced some of the health center’s shortcomings. He has visited the health center on a few occasions over the past three years, most recently after coming down with the flu this winter. He thinks 15-minute visits may not be enough time to give some patients the care and information they need.

“It was alright. I got what I needed eventually but had to wait for a little bit longer than they initially said the wait time would be, even though I had already made an appointment,” Murray said. “By the time she finally saw me, it was only a couple minutes before I was sent out.”

However, Rodgers said the university is making an effort to combat the overtime for employees and long wait times for patients. In addition to the increase in funding, in fall of 2017 the health center increased staffing for the first time in many years, leading to a decrease in overtime. Currently, classified staff such as nurses and clerical employees are paid overtime when they exceed 40 hours in a workweek.

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