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Free health care leads students to fit academic careers

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When Debbie Stone talks about what Kaiser Permanente’s program has done for her students, it’s hard not to get choked up.

“It has made a huge difference for students over the years,” said Stone, who runs the Women’s Resource Center at the Cascade Campus (705 N. Killingsworth St.). “I have a student who didn’t have health insurance for three or four years and, when she came to our program, she hadn’t been able to work. She was coming back to school as a way to maybe think about doing less rigorous work. During that term, the woman was diagnosed with cancer. She was able to take six months off from college while she got treatments that saved her life and she is now at Portland State University after completing her associate’s degree at PCC.”

That’s just one of the stories. Stone has many more of how Kaiser Permanente’s long-standing free health care program helped students in need. For 18 years, the Transitions program at Cascade has had this service. Recently, the offer from Kaiser spread to other campuses and have been overseen by each venue’s Women’s Resource Center. But last March it was temporarily expanded to help students in five targeted programs at each campus. The coverage is available to the students and their families for four years if they stay in college.

The numbers vary at each campus, but at Cascade there are 304 students and dependents who have health insurance under this program; 327 at Rock Creek (17705 N.W. Springville Road); 214 at the Sylvania Campus (12000 S.W. 49th Ave.); and 68 at the Southeast Center (2305 S.E. 82nd and Division).

Forty-nine-year-old Rebecca Gray said the health coverage has been a lifesaver. Having dropped out of high school in her teens, she married young, had three children and spent her 20s and 30s working on farms in her hometown of Forest Grove. Three years ago she began taking classes at PCC’s Hillsboro Education Center, where she learned about the New Directions program. She lives on a third-generation family property, does work-study for Washington County and keeps her expenses low. Prior to getting on the Kaiser plan, she paid $230 per month for medication.

“It depleted my savings,” she said. “If this program didn’t exist, I would have had to quit school and look for a job with health coverage.”

Gray, who maintains a 3.75 grade-point average while studying at the Rock Creek Campus, hopes to pursue a degree in psychology at Portland State University or Pacific University. She has one son in the Marines stationed in Iraq and another son going into the National Guard.

“(At New Directions) I signed up to work on self confidence skills and narrow my career path focus,” she said. “But halfway through, I realized I could get a degree. I had never imagined I could do that. At an earlier age, college didn’t seem like an option.”

Stone said the idea is that Kaiser wanted to support women going back to college so they could work toward economic independency via education without worrying about paying for medical expenses.

“One reason in particular parents work full time rather going to school is for the medical benefits,” Stone said. “It’s very risky to let go of medical benefits, especially when you have a child. A lot of people don’t see the option of going to college without it. It’s a huge retention tool but I think it also allows people to really open up their dreaming.”

Stone has been at PCC for seven years after 12 years at Mount Hood Community College. Nothing, however, prepares her for the reactions of the students who are eligible for the free health care.

“They ask if is this real; they really don’t believe it,” Stone said. “They are in total shock.”

Christine Paull, who is the Rock Creek Women’s Resource Center coordinator, expressed deep gratitude for what Kaiser has achieved in changing the lives of students like Gray.

“This makes a difference between some women being able to stay in college – or not,” she said.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »


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