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Toothless Healthcare

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The University, citing financial strains, recently announced its plans to permanently close both its Dental Service and Pharmacy at the end of the year. As a result, many patients have understandably expressed varying gradations of disappointment — they have been stripped of longtime clinical relationships founded upon good rapport and hard-earned trust in their dentists. One dentist at the Service expressed shock, distraught at their forced departure from patients, and concerned about finding new work in the midst of a global pandemic. The Pharmacy was a staple of convenience and assurance of care, which all Harvard affiliates will miss.

Indeed, the University attributed both of these closures to financial difficulties amid a changing healthcare landscape. But Harvard is not a small, family-run business — it is the most well-endowed university in the world. It has enough resources to keep these services going — even to invest in reforms that could bring new life and vitality to the struggling clinic and pharmacy. Does Harvard have no desire to preserve the clinic’s environment of patient trust and support? No regard for the convenience and security offered by a dependable, accessible pharmacy? No understanding of the fact that these closures will disproportionately affect low-income students, who are often otherwise uninsured and thus tend to rely on Harvard University Health Services the most? These services have real value, and using “financial difficulties” to justify closing them is mostly an indicator of shifting financial priorities which do not seem to include the health of students.

This isn’t an isolated case of abandonment. It’s embedded within a much larger trend of the University making choices to downsize and short-circuit its critical healthcare offerings. In 2015, HUHS closed Stillman Infirmary, which had offered short-term care to patients and often serviced intoxicated students who came to HUHS under the College’s amnesty policy. And in June 2019, HUHS stopped offering overnight Urgent Care to patients in-person.

What’s next? If Harvard’s Primary Care services fail to turn a profit in the coming months, will the University shut these down too? Likely not, given the greater demand for Primary Care and thus the attention and opposition that would follow such a closure. But this is illustrative of the problem itself: without pressure or obligation, the University sees no worthwhile incentive to maintain critical services in the face of material loss. The substantive community obligations that should actually guide these decisions — guaranteeing accessible care to students in need, maintaining valued patient-doctor relationships, and even keeping care providers and their families financially afloat amid troubling times — seem to hold little value when it comes to the University's cost-benefit calculations.

So sadly, inevitably, the Dental and Pharmacy Services will become distant, fondly-remembered pieces of Harvard history by next year. Much of the road ahead is still obscure. What will the University do to prioritize the health of its students and other affiliates? What will drive the University: profit or care? Revitalization or abandonment? How will the University's choices impact its students? Will these choices be crippling or uplifting? Ultimately, students’ care is in the University’s hands, if not their trust.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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