By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern has discontinued its longstanding practice of offering low-cost health screenings to nonemployees.
MSU-Northern wellness director Janet Trethewey said the university dropped the program at the request of Northern Montana Health Care, which said the screenings competed with its services.
"They did it very politely," Trethewey said Tuesday. "They said, 'It's your choice, but this is the law.'"
More than 2,000 screenings were done for nonemployees in the last three years, she said.
As a result of Northern's decision, the Hill County Health Department has begun offering screenings at a similar cost at health fairs.
"We did respond to people asking if we would continue the service," Hill County Health Department nursing director Cindy Smith said.
Northern Vice Chancellor Chuck Jensen said the screenings the university offered are part of the employee benefit package, and offering them to other people did not fit the university's mission.
"That's not our business, to provide health screens to the public," he said.
In 1998, the Montana Board of Regents adopted a policy that university activities should not compete with the private sector unless those activities are clearly a byproduct of the university's educational, research and public service mission.
Trethewey said she doesn't agree that the unadvertised service was in direct competition with Northern Montana Health Care.
Many of the people who used the university service couldn't afford to have the hospital do the screenings, including people who don't have health insurance, Trethewey said.
"If these people have to pay what the hospital is charging, they just won't get (the screenings) done," she said.
Northern allowed people from the community to use the health screenings for at least 16 years, Trethewey said. The primary part of the screening is what is known as a chemscreen, which includes 28 tests on a blood sample. Northern's insurance covers the cost for employees, while community members paid $20 for the chemscreen and additional charges for other tests like checking for thyroid or prostate problems, she said.
The university offered the chemscreens once a month through the fall and spring semesters, she said.
The last one was offered this month, Jensen said.
Trethewey said representatives of Northern Montana Health Care, including president and chief executive officer David Henry, met with her, Chancellor Alex Capdeville and other university personnel early this year at the request of Henry. Northern Montana Health are is a nonprofit corporation that owns Northern Montana Hospital.
"They said they were concerned with our being in competition with them," she said.
She said that after the meeting Capdeville decided the university would no longer allow people who are not employees to use the service.
Jensen, who did not attend the meeting, said the university and Northern Montana Health Care discussed the issue of competition, but that hospital officials did not ask that Northern stop offering the screenings to the community.
"It was our own decision," he said.
Northern Montana Health Care spokeswoman Kathie Newell said Tuesday that she thought the decision to discontinue offering the tests to the public was made by the Board of Regents.
"We understood it was a Board of Regents decision," she said.
When informed that it was not, Newell said she would try to get in touch with Henry, who is out of town. She said today that Henry would not authorize additional comments comments until he had spoken to Capdeville.
Capdeville was out of town and could not be reached for comment Tuesday or today.
The Hill County Health Department offered its first screening about two weeks ago at the North Central Senior Citizens Center. About 55 people used the screenings there, Smith said.
She said the next health fair will probably be in October.
Smith said the cost of the tests at the health fairs depends on what company the Health Department uses to test the samples. At the fair at the senior center, a chemscreen cost $28, with other tests costing extra. For example, she said a complete blood count test cost an extra $15, while a prostate test cost an extra $25.
Smith noted that the service is just a screening, and people who find they have health problems or risks will need to see their doctor about treatment.
Trethewey said that since the health department can advertise the health fairs, more people likely will now use the screenings.
"Now it's kind of a win-win situation for everybody," she said. "There's always a silver lining to the cloud."
The chemscreen includes testing liver and kidney functions, blood glucose levels, iron levels, triglyceride levels and cholesterol levels, Trethewey said.
She said the chemscreens are a valuable resource for people to check for a variety of health problems, many of which could go undetected without the tests.
"We caught a lot of things that would have slipped through the cracks otherwise," Trethewey said.
Newell said she could not say what the hospital charges for a chemscreen without knowing exactly what the 28 components are.
Northern Montana Health Care is not the first local enterprise to question whether Northern is competing with private business.
A Havre businessman lost a lawsuit filed against MSU-Northern in 1994 claiming the university was competing against his business in violation of state law and the state constitution.
William Dritshulas Jr. said Northern was competing with his company, The Duck Inn Inc., by renting its facilities to host social events. Dritshulas said the university's activities exceeded the scope of its authority granted by state law and violated the constitution by using tax dollars for private instead of public activities.
District Judge John Warner ruled against Dritshulas and dismissed the complaint on March 20, 1997. Dritshulas appealed to the state Supreme Court, which found against his appeal on Dec. 9, 1997.