Montana State University

Mountains and Minds


Photo by Kelly Gorham

Jim Mitchell October 12, 2012 by Amy Stix • Published 10/12/12

The Rx for student health issues
  • Page 1 of 1
By the time the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010, much of the legislation's contents had been scrutinized, bitterly debated, and regularly featured on 24-hour news cycles. But one aspect of the law was nearly overlooked. In fact, if not for the perseverance of Jim Mitchell, director of MSU's Student Health Service, a key provision to insure college students might never have made it into the final bill.

Mitchell's success in ensuring that college student health plans are fully recognized within the Affordable Care Act was not accomplished amid the cinematic backdrop of gavels pounding in tension-filled congressional hearing rooms. Rather, his work was achieved through months of painstaking research, collaboration, and frequent conference calls, which culminated in a meeting in Washington, D.C. There, Mitchell and two of his counterparts from other universities met with staff members from the Senate Finance Committee, the committee that held primary responsibility for hammering out every detail of the bill's contents.

Mitchell recalls that the Senate Finance Committee's staff quarters were "crowded, cramped, with papers piled up." It was "organized chaos. We were sitting in their break room.

"Truth be told, that's where the work gets done," he added.

What really impressed Mitchell about his lobbying experience was how genuinely interested the bill drafters were to hear from him and his cohorts.

"It was actually comforting, because you had people who wanted to do the right thing. They listened," he said.

What the senate staffers heard from Mitchell was the need to allow for the existence of student health plans within the Affordable Care Act, as well as assurances that every student plan would cover students during major health crises.

"You see the future of America walking around you every day. (Student Health Service) just became where I wanted to be."
-- Jim Mitchell
"We were trying to raise the standards of student health plans," he said. "We had to make a case for why they are needed and why they needed to make changes. In the past, many college students unwittingly assumed they had decent health insurance when in reality, the policies they purchased provided little or no coverage for major health crises."

Beginning this fall, student health insurance plans offered to students through universities will be on a path to improved coverage. By 2014, student plans will be subject to the same requirements as plans offered to all other Americans. Mitchell said that the Montana University System plan already complies with most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, so the impact for this plan will not be significant.

"We really accomplished not only allowing for these (student) plans to continue, but to improve the quality of them going forward."

Throughout his 20 years overseeing MSU's Student Health Service, Mitchell has been a leader in the area of student health insurance reform. After he arrived at MSU, he worked with his counterpart at the University of Montana to create a student health insurance plan that now covers students on all Montana University System campuses. At MSU the student insurance plan covers nearly 3,000 individuals, the majority of whom come from families who are uninsured and older, non-traditional students who are ineligible for inclusion on their parents' plans.

A past president of the American College Health Association, Mitchell helped launch the Lookout Mountain Group in 2009, an organization that was formed by him and several of his college health colleagues to study the impact of health care reform on the college student population. The group has gathered data and developed position papers examining the effects of various federal and state health care reform models on college health programs and student health insurance. As the organization's spokesman, Mitchell has frequently been quoted in the media, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune.

He said that better coverage not only improves the availability and quality of medical care for young adults, it also helps drive down the costs of health care for everyone, because the more people who have health insurance equates to fewer individuals shouldering the costs of care for those who lack it.

"Jim was a leader in college health long before we were talking about this brand of health care reform," said Dana Mills, director of the University Health Center at the University of Oregon and a member of the Lookout Mountain Group.

Mills said Mitchell was instrumental in ensuring that the issue of student health care was included within the Affordable Care Act, noting that, "Jim's value and influence transcends the college health community. He's truly made a difference for the health and safety of students."

The roots of Jim Mitchell's work can be traced to Botswana, where he served in the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in economics. While volunteering in Africa, he helped build health clinics and worked on the development of a regional public health plan. When he returned to the U.S., Mitchell returned to UVA and worked for the university's student health service. After 15 years with UVA, he returned to the Rocky Mountain West (he was raised in Colorado), and began his career with MSU.

His focus managing MSU's college health program is on providing efficient, quality services to students in MSU's nationally accredited health service. He said one of his most meaningful accomplishments was helping establish MSU's Victim Options in the Campus Environment, or VOICE Center, which provides support, advocacy and resources to survivors of sexual and domestic violence on campus.

Mitchell also sits on a local emergency preparedness committee that meets monthly and includes public health officials from Bozeman and Gallatin County. His involvement ensures MSU is part of an effective emergency response team that tackles everything from H1N1 flu outbreaks to bioterrorism threats.

Another critical component of his work is to provide information, education and guidance to students regarding their health and self-care. Mitchell said many college students are in a phase of self-discovery, often experimenting with everything from alcohol to their own sexuality.

Mitchell credits the 45 "outstanding professionals" who work alongside him for helping to carry out this work--as well as helping him remain calm and relatively worry free amid the specters of virulent flu strains and other student health emergencies. For Mitchell, the most thrilling aspect of his job--and the reason he is passionate about a career that spans 35 years--is the opportunity to spend his days surrounded by young people.

"You see the future of America walking around you every day," he said of working on a campus. "It just became where I wanted to be." ■