USG candidates incorporate student health into platforms

When freshman Emily Johnson first came to USC, several incidents led her to start thinking about health care access on campus.

One of her friends struggled to stay awake with a throbbing headache after the Engemann Student Health Center denied her an appointment because of a lack of availability. Another friend, whisked away by an ambulance after experiencing chest pains because the center was closed when she required medical attention, later received a $1500 medical bill.

These experiences led Johnson to run for the USG Senate, with the hope of improving access to health resources in the upcoming school year. She and her candidate partner, sophomore Angela Chuang, have integrated several health and wellness points into their campaign platform.

“I definitely think a commonality between our biggest platform points is really how we feel like there’s a lack of resources,” Johnson said.

Student health is at the forefront of seven of the 11 USG Senate campaigns this semester, a trend that candidates say has grown from raised awareness and the desire to speak out among the student population. All three presidential tickets also list student health as one of their platform points.

As senators, Johnson and Chuang aim to expand emergency services at Engemann, improve required safety and wellness online courses and redesign the Engemann website.

Johnson hopes making emergency services more available would prevent situations like those her friends faced from ever happening again, while the online safety courses would teach students how to lead healthier lives.

Students are eager to see some of these changes take place. Maansi Solanky, a freshman majoring in neuroscience, said that the website redesign stood out to her.

“I personally don’t know all of the facilities that are provided by Engemann because I don’t think that it’s made very clear,” Solanky said. “I think it would be nice to see the health center be more proactive in making students aware of what services they can get.”

Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health, said it was clear that Engemann did not have enough capacity to meet the needs of all USC students.

“We just didn’t have enough staff to provide this number of services that were needed, both in medical care, in particular areas, but more importantly in mental health,” Van Orman said. “We don’t have that problem fixed yet, but I think there’s a really clear commitment from the university and … a really clear path to rectify that.”

The campaign also wants to increase the number of mental health professionals available to students and lower the number of off-campus counseling referrals —  a process that can be expensive and time-consuming. Van Orman said that currently, 70 percent of people seeking mental health services are referred off campus, a number that she hopes to bring down to 30 percent.

“I was struggling with a lot of mental health issues at my old university, and I was really grateful that my old university was able to address my needs as soon as possible,” Chuang said. “I was actually able to schedule an appointment that week which was extremely helpful for me, but unfortunately, that’s not that case here at USC. It came as a shock for me.”

According to Van Orman, USC is in the process of implementing a plan to increase access to student counseling and mental health services. By Fall 2019, 12 new therapists will bring the student-to-counselor ratio closer to the national recommendation. Currently, one counselor serves 1,700 students rather than the recommended 1,000.

Along with Johnson and Chuang, candidates Julian Kuffour, Hailey Robertson and Ben Rosenthal prioritize increasing mental health services to address the long wait time to access counseling appointments at Engemann.

Robertson suggested not only reducing off-campus referrals, but also reimbursing students for transportation costs to get there. In addition, she advocates for opportunity funds like those at the University of California, Berkeley, to offset the financial burden on students. She aims to set aside about $100 per person for students who receive financial aid like Pell Grants to spend on USC pharmacy- or health-related expenses.

“It’s a way to ensure that students from a poor socioeconomic background are able to afford treatment and get the care that they deserve without putting a strain on their own wallets,” Robertson said. “I don’t think any student who is already supporting themselves or struggles to support themselves should have to worry that, ‘I can’t afford that drug, I can’t afford that treatment.’”

Kuffour made it his goal to expand Disabled Access to Road Transportation, a program offered by USC that provides transportation for people with special needs during business hours on weekdays. He wants to increase the hours of operation to assist those with weekend activities or night classes.

“The thing that I noticed the first time I got to USC was that the foot traffic is just absolutely ridiculous,” Kuffour said. “I can’t imagine how that would be for somebody who has different transportation needs.”

Another issue that both campaign teams are working to battle is sexual assault. Johnson and Chuang are working to implement bystander programs, which train students in different organizations on sexual assault prevention. Kuffour, Robertson and Rosenthal want to introduce rape kit and date rape drug testing services at Engemann.

Robertson pointed out that students who report sexual assaults are sent to the Rape Crisis Center in Santa Monica, a drive that can take as long as an hour. According to Van Orman, it would be difficult to bring the level of specialization this center offers to Engemann — including forensic examination, physical assessments, medications to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies, counseling for trauma and law enforcement. But for Robertson, the status quo is unacceptable.

“To have to drive around Los Angeles and be in an Uber alone for an hour after you’ve been assaulted and you’re dealing with all that trauma is just the last thing any survivor should have to go through,” Robertson said.

To successfully push these initiatives through USG and the administration, Rosenthal believes one of the most important steps is to increase student representation on the Board of Trustees. He added that many students are disillusioned with the University after several recent scandals — including reports that a campus gynecologist sexually abused women for decades.

“The administration is oftentimes really hard to change,” Rosenthal said. “Having a student voice within that board would enable more initiatives to get through. We wouldn’t have to jump through all these levels of bureaucracy to get to the highest level, to the point where we can actually create change.”