Feeling the strain

Student Health Services at CSU hurt by budget cuts, staff reductions

Mimi Bommersbach of Chico State’s Counseling Center has been vocal in her displeasure with the staffing situation in her department.

Mimi Bommersbach of Chico State’s Counseling Center has been vocal in her displeasure with the staffing situation in her department.

Photo By Howard Hardee

As Chico State officials continue to grapple with the school’s unsavory party school image, some have questioned whether the university is properly fulfilling its obligation to provide students with on-campus medical and mental-health services.

Mimi Bommersbach, who has worked as a counselor and interim director at Chico State’s Counseling Center for 10 years, has been particularly vocal in her criticism. After Chico State President Paul Zingg temporarily suspended all Greek activity last fall in the aftermath of Sigma Pi pledge Mason Sumnicht’s alcohol-related death (see Mark Lore’s cover story on page 18), Bommersbach wrote a letter to the Chico Enterprise-Record. In it she blasted the university administration for “the careless way they address student health and safety” and taking “the easy way out by blaming Greeks.”

Bommersbach also pointed out the irony of moving the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education (CADEC) program into a smaller office over Labor Day weekend in 2012, just as thousands of possibly intoxicated students took to the Sacramento River for the annual float.

During an interview at her office in the Student Services Center on campus, Bommersbach agreed her decision to publicly criticize her employers was a bold one, but asserted she was motivated by an increasingly stressful situation for her and her colleagues at the Counseling Center. In the summer of 2011, both the center and CADEC were placed under the umbrella of Student Health Services, which runs the Student Health Center, and stripped of state funding support. Now, all three programs largely rely on money generated by student health fees to stay afloat.

The Counseling Center has been short a counseling position and a true director since the merger, forcing the staff to “get creative” in making time for students, she said. Counselors often will schedule group sessions to ensure they meet with students at least once a week, while the department’s associate director will stay through the lunch hour to serve walk-in patients. Bommersbach maintains the strain has begun to decrease the quality of student mental-health services.

“People have had to pick up more and more work,” she said. “You can’t see too many patients in a day if you want to have quality care. We keep expanding what these six counselors are able to do, and at some point it’s too much.”

Bommersbach said the demand for mental-health services is only increasing on campus, and it’s unclear how much longer student health fees will sustain all three programs.

“Our center has not been supported,” she said.

Chico State has had its state appropriation budget reduced by $40 million over the past five years, said Drew Calandrella, vice president for student affairs, in an email. Over that same period, the Division of Student Affairs—including the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center, CADEC and other programs like athletics, the Career Center and Student Judicial Affairs—has had its state funding cut by $2.1 million, a reduction of 25 percent.

Calandrella agreed that in facing such funding cuts, staff across campus have “rightly felt stretched at times to provide the level of service they had in the past.”

VP for Student Affairs Drew Calandrella says staffing shortages are due to state funding cuts.

Photo By Mark Lore

At the Student Health Center—the busiest health clinic between Sacramento and Oregon, serving students through roughly 30,000 visits a year—the story has been strikingly similar to that of the Counseling Center. A former health center employee who spoke with the CN&R on condition of anonymity said staff reductions have resulted in physicians and nurses working through their lunch hours, staying well after their shifts have ended and assuming responsibilities not detailed in their job descriptions.

“The result is that waiting times average an hour and can be up to three hours,” the source said. “I would say patient care and quality have declined as a result of our short staffing.”

Like the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center has lacked a chief nursing officer since Denise Fleming resigned from her position in July of last year. (Fleming is the wife of CN&R Editor Robert Speer.)

“When Denise left, [the university] didn’t replace her,” the health center source said. “The job is still open. A lot of qualified people have applied and been turned down. It gives the impression there isn’t a will to hire a replacement.

“Every time somebody retires from the center, we’re told there’s a hiring freeze, they can’t hire a replacement, or they will replace them but it won’t be for a semester or two.”

Since the retirement of the laboratory director about three years ago, the source said, lab technicians have been administering the service.

And it’s been nearly two years since the Student Health Center’s last director, Kathy Felix, resigned, and her position still has not been filled. In the meantime, Dr. Deborah Stewart—who was hired as medical director to supervise physicians and nurse practitioners—has assumed the role of executive director. The health center source described Stewart as “very qualified and highly trained,” but said she is able to see only “10 or 12 patients a week because of all the administrative duties that have been heaped on her. She is technically the chief of medicine, but she is really serving as director.”

Calandrella said his office is actively in the process of recruiting a replacement for Fleming and is considering several strategies regarding securing long-term revenue sources for the programs under his supervision. Possibilities include implementing a mental-health fee, as several CSU campuses already have done; raising the student health fee from $129 per semester, which would require a student vote; or returning staff and services to state funding as more money is made available.

In the meantime, he insists the current student health fees will provide “sufficient funding for the next two to three years” and that “while mindful of the funding issues, I am not concerned about sustaining these necessary services.”

Both Bommersbach and the health center source believe the resources provided by their respective programs, along with those offered by CADEC, have never been more critical to the physical and mental well-being of Chico State students.

“The number of students with really elevated anxiety and panic disorders is through the roof,” Bommersbach said. “Students are feeling the pressure to graduate faster, take more units and save their parents money.”

The health center source agreed that, for many students, the challenges college presents can be overwhelming and that “20 years ago, I didn’t see nearly this much anxiety and depression.

“You detach from the parental home, get used to doing your own laundry, cooking and shopping,” the source said. “You decide who you’re going to be and who your life partner is. You manage your finances and take on a heavy debt burden. This is a hugely stressful time in a person’s life, and we’re not supporting them with health resources.”