By Katherine Coble || Assistant News Editor
It takes a village to raise a child…or to change a health policy.
That’s what Alison Renna ‘18 figured out over the year and a half she spent working to adjust the College’s counseling payment plan. Renna, a remarkably articulate and tenacious junior from Spring Lake, New Jersey, is a licensed insurance professional. At the conclusion of her freshman year, Renna learned that Franklin & Marshall would be eliminating its unlimited free counseling policy and switching to a privatized system in which students received only one free session a year. The change, which occured as part of the College’s partnership with Lancaster General Health, angered and upset her.
“My first reaction was indignation,” Renna explains, saying that it frustrated her that students would suddenly have to pay for a service they had previously received without payment. “I got mad. I was very, very angry.” Renna used counseling services herself as a second semester freshman to help her balance her stressful F&M workload. She was concerned for the implications the policy change would have on her fellow students, particularly those without health insurance or without families understanding of mental health issues. Renna knew firsthand how useful counseling could be. Now she worried students that would benefit from counseling services wouldn’t go at all – saving their one free session for after they were completely overwhelmed, not before.
Diplomatic Congress president Wyatt Behringer ‘18 expressed similar concerns as soon as he heard of the changes during the HA training session in August of 2015. According to Behringer, the HAs were blown away and upset after the news was given to them in a presentation. “You could hear immediately the shift in the room when that was told to us. Students were pissed. They were asking questions, drilling the presenter. It was immediately a concern.” Behringer says that during his first year at F&M, simply knowing that free counseling was available to him was comforting. Under the new policy, he could not offer that ethos to his residents.
Dean of the College Margaret Hazlett says the process of partnering with Lancaster General Health began as soon as she took over the position of Dean in the summer of 2013. The privatization of the system was a sacrifice made in order to provide students with a wellness service with better resources for students. Some of these benefits listed by Hazlett included access to better medical practitioners, the ability to be a part of LGH’s electronic medical system to ease the transfer of medical documents, and access to a greater network of providers.
“Nationally, students are coming to college today with more and more significant health issues and more complicated health issues,” Dean Hazlett says. The partnership with LGH allows F&M to provide the best possible care for such students. Hazlett says that she knew students would be unhappy with the plan and the administration understood its consequences. “We knew this was going to be a change in culture, but we also saw the benefits.”
Shortly after the 2015-16 school year got underway, Renna felt moved to take action and attempt to adjust the payment plan. At the advice of then-DipCon president Donnell Bailey ‘17, she joined the Health & Wellness Committee of the Diplomatic Congress and was appointed to sit on the Lancaster General Health/Franklin & Marshall Joint Operating Committee alongside Grace Brown ‘16.
As soon as the new plan went into effect, adjustments were made by the administration. Most notably, Dean Hazlett’s office created a fund for students who couldn’t afford the payment plan. In Behringer’s words, the fund “obviously didn’t cut it.” He was concerned that the administration believed some funding was enough to resolve the issue and appease students. “I think Dean Hazlett’s office assumed that [a fund] was a solution and that it was working. But I was very skeptical.” Behringer felt that issues of confidentiality and access were still not taken care of. Renna, too, worried that even students that might qualify for funding would be unaware of the resources available to them because of the sometimes complicated, often daunting language of health-care policy. For students, the issue persevered.
All the while, Renna continued to sit on the Joint Operating Committee, growing increasingly more frustrated with inaction. She looks back on the meetings with disappointment. “It was always, ‘We’ll address it at the next meeting.’”The Committee stalled, unsure if the consequences of the policy change were concrete or anecdotal. They were largely unwilling to make any changes to the policy until Renna could show that the switch had a detrimental impact on students or that a significant portion of the student body wanted the policy to change. She sat on the committee for an entire year. From her perspective, no progress was made.
“I thought, ‘By the time this change happens, I’m going to graduate’,” Renna recalls. For not the first time, she considered dropping the project altogether. But Renna also understood that she was in a unique position to push for an adjustment to the payment plan. After she graduated, there would be no F&M students left that remembered the free counseling plan. Renna worried that she would leave while the system remained. It was this possibility that pushed her to pursue her advocacy further.
When Renna returned to campus in September 2016, she was ready to take her project a step forward. With the help of faculty such as psychology professor Meredith Bashaw, she began composing an article for publication in The College Reporter and made a petition to accompany it. Renna was concerned that the administration would react to these methods in a defensive way.
“Something that I ardently believed then and continue to believe now is that standing in absolute opposition can be much more hurtful to progress than it can be helpful,” Renna says. She understood that she and the administration both wanted the best for F&M and its students. They just had different ideas of how to accomplish that lofty goal. But because of backing from tenured faculty, Renna felt that she had enough to support to go through and publish the article.
Renna turned to the Diplomatic Congress to inform them of her decision. It took Behringer by surprise. He had not realized how stilted progress on the project had become. “Ali came to us and said that it was very clear this [change] was not going to happen. And at that point it became a major issue for DipCon.” Renna and Behringer both feel the petition was a turning point in the quest to change the counseling payment plan. Renna credits its success to the support of Diplomatic Congress and their efforts to share the petition across campus. It ultimately reached more than 800 signatures.
“Communication was much more frequent and much more productive after the petition came out,” Renna says. The administration, including Dr. Porterfield and Dean Hazlett, understood how widespread concern over the counseling policy was. They reached out to Renna and several others close to the project, including Wyatt Behringer, to inform them of a change. The College would begin to offer eight free counseling sessions a year, breaking down to four a semester. Notably, Dean Hazlett’s funding will still be available for students that cannot afford to pay past the eight-session mark.
“Ultimately, I think counseling services should be free,” Behringer insists. “But I think that this is a really good step and a really good sign of partnership with the administration that I am very happy with.” Renna echoes this sentiment. “My ideal would be unlimited [counseling],” she says, “However, eight free sessions a year does eliminate the two major barriers I presented: accessibility and confidentiality.”
On Tuesday, November 22, as F&M students began to leave campus for Thanksgiving break, Dean Hazlett sent an email informing the rest of the student body of the new 8-session plan. Renna says she was headed home at the time and found her phone flooded with messages of congratulations. “I had to put my phone on silent and drive home. And when I got home I opened my phone and was able to talk to everyone,” Renna recalls happily. “It was really emotional because I knew a lot of people were going to benefit from this.”
It is undoubtedly true that everyone involved in the policy change will walk away from the experience knowing more than they did before. “It was quite a learning experience,” Renna says, “Learning how change happens.” Though Renna credits the support of her community for helping her accomplish her goals through patience, perseverance, and empathy, Behringer offers an additional takeaway: “I learned that one person can make a difference. Ali Renna made me believe this change was possible.”
For now, Renna and the rest of Diplomatic Congress do not intend to pursue further negotiations over the counseling payment plan. They see the latest change as a success. Dean Hazlett, however, anticipates this discussion to be ongoing. “It’ll be a constant review. We don’t want to narrow access. We need to broaden access for our students… We need to think proactively about how we prevent issues while also recognizing the more significant mental health issues that are coming to campus.”
Both Renna and Behringer feel that one of the most inspiring parts about this journey of negotiation was seeing how the Franklin & Marshall community can get behind an issue and find a solution. “I learned about this crazy fire in F&M students that I hadn’t seen before,” Renna enthuses. She sees this saga as an example of students with passion making a concrete difference in their community. Renna’s tenacity will certainly serve as an example of what anyone at F&M can accomplish if they care about it enough.
“It’s easy to think that you can’t make a difference,” Renna acknowledges. “I didn’t think I could until a few weeks ago. So it’s nice to know that we can.”
First-year Katherine Coble is the Assistant News Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.