Students and Administrators Work to Increase Health Care Access
March 29, 2010
For Allison Anderson, the price of not having health insurance was about $1,000. That’s how much she was charged after a broken glass in the kitchen sink sent her to the emergency room.
Her family is still paying off the bill, she said. "I try to keep healthy because I don’t like putting my family in more debt."
It was a wakeup call for the Milwaukie High School sophomore, who knew her own experience was far from rare at a school where 56percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Now, with the Helping Our People Exceed (HOPE) student group, Anderson helps raise awareness about health care by promoting the school’s new medical van open to all students.
The van, run by social services non-profit Outside In, park sat the school from 9 a.m. to noon every Friday, and is staffed by Wayne Sells,the medical director of Outside In and director of OHSU’s division of adolescent health.
Since the van first arrived in February, dozens of students have used the services — which range from physicals to urgent care — and many of them subsequently signed up for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s health insurance program for low-income families and individuals.
But the weekly service represents more than just a convenient addition to the school’s part-time nurse. For administrators and the HOPE group, it may be a major step toward opening the latest school-based health center in Clackamas County, where about nine percent of children were uninsured in 2008, according to census bureau data.
‘No money to build’
Assistant principal Michael Ralls can practically pitch the health center in his sleep: The Milwaukie High School Health and Wellness Center will be staffed with a full-time nurse practitioner, medical assistant,and behavioral health counselor; cover 28,000 square feet; and likely cost at least $350,000 to get started.
Funding would come through a variety of sources, including private, state and federal grants. Partnerships with area hospitals or non-profit agencies could provide the medical services, he said.
Though a fundraising campaign and grant applications are in the works, the center – which Ralls hopes to open by January 2011 – has little more than $50,000 in county money.
"We probably are the best planned school-based health center with no money to build," he said.
Milwaukie’s center would join 54 other state-certified school-based health care centers that are a key part of the state’s safety net,according to Liz Smith Currie, policy director of the Oregon School-Based Health Care Network. Fourteen additional centers are in the works.
"They are popping up all over because educators and community leaders realize that health care has a huge impact on the ability to learn," Smith Currie said.
Opening the center has become a passion for Ralls. As a former assistant principal of New Urban High School, he witnessed the tolls untreated health problems took on students. Once, a boy’s toothache worsened to the point where he couldn’t deliver an assigned speech.
"It’s heartbreaking seeing the students who are successful in spite of so many things in their lives that run up against medical issues which stop them from going to class, being able to attend school, being able to concentrate on taking a test," Ralls said.
At New Urban, he secured a $30,000 planning grant that followed him to Milwaukie High.
He is counting on the medical van’s services to demonstrate a high need at the school. In a recent survey, officials discovered that fewer than half of its students reported regular medical visits.
Addressing access problems
Milwaukie High’s focus on health services comes at an opportune time, following the approval of both the federal health care overhaul bill and state legislation opening the Oregon Health Plan to about 80,000 additional children.
But even with expanded coverage, some are concerned about access. Many private practices in Oregon cannot take on more state plan patients because Medicaid payments are too low.
"Insurance does not equal access," said Smith Currie.
But school-based health care can help fill that void."If you put the health care where the kids are — in school — and accept them regardless of their insurance product, you’re actually creating the perfect access point," she said.
That will be welcome change for those like Anna Demidovich,17, another member of the HOPE group. She once couldn’t enroll in a sport because her mother could not find time to take her to a mandatory physical.
"There are probably a lot more other kids who have my story, and a lot of kids I know who don’t have health insurance," she said.
The HOPE group is planning a week in April to sign up uninsured students to the Oregon Health Plan, said Anderson, and they are making posters to publicize the medical van.
Seeing every Milwaukie High student with health insurance and access is the ultimate goal, she said. "That way, we can all survive,be healthy, and help our parents out."