Bill To Restore Student Health Center Funding Gains Momentum in the Legislature

Jan 19, 2018

After losing state funding last July, school-based health centers could see it restored under a bill being considered by the Health and Human Services Committee. Proponents say the health centers are critical to keeping kids healthy and in school. But some are concerned that reinstating the funding would lead to cuts to other state health programs.

Schools are usually associated with academics, as opposed to health care. But according to Calais schools superintendent Ron Jenkins, the two share an important link.

“If a student is not healthy, he or she cannot learn,” says Jenkins.

And in his rural school district, Jenkins says the school-based health center serves 80% of its students. Without it, he says, kids would lose medical and dental care.

“Also, the school would not have somewhere to refer a students in crisis, whether due to drugs or alcohol, thoughts of suicide, concerns about getting pregnant, or simply the pressures of growing up,” he says.

The mental health services these clinics provide was highlighted by many who testified in support of the bill during a public hearing before the Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday. Cassie Hillman is a senior at Brewer High School.

“Unfortunately, our high school lost one of my classmates due to suicide last year,” Hillman says. “Schools have more work to do to prevent tragedies such as suicide, and I think the school based health center is important to this issue.”

Last July, funding for the state’s 15 school-based health centers was eliminated in the state budget as part of a larger $10 million cut to Center for Disease Control programs. This bill, which is largely supported by Democrats, would reinstate the funding in full, to about $600,000 a year.

“My health center’s portion of state funding if LD 1710 passes is $36,000 a year,” says Rebecca Reynolds, director of the health center at Maranacook Community School.

She says that’s a small investment that more than pays for itself, particularly in the clinic’s work to prevent teen pregnancies.

“When you consider the cost to the state for prenatal care for a teenage mom, the birth of her child, and that child’s medical care through the age of 18 and sometimes beyond,” she says.

But when HHS committee co-chair — Republican Senator Eric Brakey — considers costs, he points out that last year’s state budget also allocated an additional $162 million to schools. He asked several people who testified in support of the bill why schools aren’t using that money to fund their clinics.

“It seems to me, that we essentially kinda we put the money there and gave the schools the opportunity to have more flexibility in how those funds are spent and to spend it on their highest priorities,” Brakey says.

John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association explained that the school funding formula requires money to go to essential services.

“It’s what it takes to get our kids proficient in the seven content areas. It doesn’t cover things like school-based health centers,” says Kosinski.

No one testified in opposition to the bill. But several health organizations testified neither for nor against because it’s unclear where exactly the money to reinstate funding would come from. Becca Boulos is with the Maine Public Health Association.

“We just don’t want to see further cuts to other critical health programs,” Boulos says.

Democratic Senator Shenna Bellows, one of the sponsors of the bill, says funding choices are difficult, and lawmakers should prioritize programs that work well.