Two days before the majority of students returned to campus, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced that Harness Health Partners had decided not to provide a number of essential reproductive health and gender-affirming care services. These services include the prescription of Plan B, except in certain extenuating scenarios. HHP is the new provider of Student Health Services and a division of Bon Secours Mercy Health. The news came as an unwelcome surprise to everyone, including the administration, as indicated by President Ambar’s email to the Oberlin community on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
“In recent days, Bon Secours informed Oberlin through media reports and emails that they are no longer comfortable with their prior position,” the email read.
According to Dean of Students Karen Goff, Bon Secours and Oberlin College signed a contract earlier this year wherein HHP agreed to provide all of the services provided to students in previous years. The sudden alteration of those terms is unacceptable and inexcusable, and the burden of the fallout is as much on the College as it is on Bon Secours. In a worsening national climate around reproductive rights, every bit of uncertainty harms us all, and while Bon Secours may rest comfortably in its Catholic proscriptions on reproductive care, both HHP and the College must now contend with serving a deeply distrusting student body.
At the heart of this conversation is a simple question: why would the College contract with an organization with clear ties to the Catholic Church when its views on reproductive rights are clearly and publicly opposed to Oberlin’s values? President Ambar has been outspoken about the College’s commitment to reproductive justice, and students have rallied and written about their every need, anxiety, and hope. If ever there were a clear collection of people standing for the same values, this is it. Where does Bon Secours’ rigid adherence to Catholic guidelines regarding reproductive rights fit into our community’s shared goals and hopes?
In an email rejecting a previous Student Health employee from a position she applied for with HHP in Student Health, a recruiter for Bon Secours wrote, “You were not well-aligned with the culture of the ministry of Bon Secours Mercy Health, and may not have been happy there long term.” Setting aside the “culture of the ministry” for a moment, we are deeply disconcerted by the greater irony of mismatched cultures and long-term unhappiness at play here.
This Editorial Board believes the College compromised its core values, and what may have started as an endeavor to serve students has instead failed to provide us with essential services and shaken us to our very core. We know the administration is committed to providing the right care, as evidenced by its speed in announcing a partnership with Family Planning Services of Lorain County, who offer reproductive and gender-affirming health services as a supplement to HHP. Even though FPSLC will only operate on campus three days a week, the College will offer transportation to their care centers on all other days. Every intention was in our best interest, but the execution and consequent reality is a critical betrayal of our trust.
The inconsistent presence of reproductive care services on campus undeniably limits access to these essential services and makes it more difficult and inconvenient for students to get the care that they need. These changes will likely have the greatest impact on members of marginalized communities who already suffer from disproportionate access to contraception. The fact is this: even if the original contract with HHP had been executed as planned, the College’s decision to contract with and thus financially support a healthcare affiliate that broadly denies critical reproductive and gender-affirming care to its other clients was already massively problematic.
All of this means HHP has its work cut out for it. If it intends to serve students effectively, it needs to gain our trust, which is no small task. Student feedback reportedly constitutes the majority of the reason Oberlin decided to terminate its contract with University Hospitals. Without our support and belief in your capacity to do right by us, you cannot serve us.
In all this commotion, the front line of people hurt by the College’s decision was its own previous employees. Last year, the College outsourced to UH, and while some portion of previous College employees navigated the shift over, not a single person from the old staff was retained by HHP this year. Several previous staff members in Student Health had held their positions for many years, creating opportunities for students to build relationships and become comfortable with the staff. Even if these were employees of UH and not the College, the College should have provided support in assisting these staff members in applying for new positions with HHP. If nothing else, their presence may have reassured students to the mildest degree, and possibly instilled hope that someone on the inside was on our side.
Students today face the dreadful fact of having to place their health and well-being in the hands of an organization that has demonstrated to us that its morality supersedes our necessities. There is already a long history of lack of trust between people in marginalized communities and medical providers, and there is no relief in sight. Student Health is meant to be a place that provides support to students. The College needs to face the fact that HHP lacks student confidence, and do the work in rebuilding student trust.