School-based health centers began in the 1960s, and they continue to expand across the country, according to a 2019 review published by the National Library of Medicine. They are often established in schools that serve low-income youth and other populations with disparate access to health care, the authors write.
In Greater Bangor, the expansion of clinics will give students easier access to primary care and mental health services. This is especially important for students from families who face financial and transportation barriers, or whose parents cannot take time off from work for appointments.
Those barriers often result in delays in receiving needed care, said Kacy Leeman, PCHC’s school-based health center manager. Having a clinic for students to visit while in school means they can be seen by medical professionals faster, saving them from being absent.
“Our mission is to keep kids in school, stay healthy and keep learning,” he said. “The clinics are widely accepted in Bangor and Brewer, and the Old Town community needs the services, perhaps even more so given the lack of health care options in the area.”
In 2006, PCHC launched school-based health centers at Brewer High School and Brewer Community School. In early 2022, a clinic opened at Bangor High School, which the district’s superintendent hailed as “wildly successful.”
The program will expand next year, with clinics coming to Old Town Elementary, JA Leonard Middle School and Old Town High School, thanks to a $700,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, said Kacy Leeman, school-based health center manager at PCHC.
James F. Doughty School and William S. Cohen School in Bangor will also get clinics, he said. Earlier this year, the Bangor City Council approved giving $500,000 of its federal pandemic relief funding to the school district to build it.
Clinical health professionals can treat asthma, ear infections and strep throat, among other conditions. They offer annual health exams, vaccinations and sports physicals.
If students do not have a primary care provider, the clinic can fill that gap. If they have a provider, parents can still enroll their children for more urgent care while in school.
“This school-based health center is a testament to our commitment to providing a holistic education that prioritizes the well-being of our students and staff,” said Matthew Cyr, superintendent of RSU 24, which serves the Alton, Bradley and Old Town. “We are confident that this will have a positive impact on the health and academic success of our students.”
The $700,000 grant will fund renovations to at least two Old Town schools, he said. The units will support a medical provider, mental health provider and school-based health coordinator, who will manage scheduling, checking students in and out of the clinic and other tasks.
The medical clinic is at Old Town Elementary, and students and staff from across the district will be able to visit it when it’s up and running by mid-March, Leeman said. Mental health services will be available in middle and high schools starting in January.
Between the three PCHC clinics, 366 students were enrolled from July 1, 2022, to June 30 of this year. The nonprofit recorded 3,282 visits and 2,434 mental health visits, according to figures provided by Leeman.
Notably, 74 percent of all visits are for mental health services, which highlights the growing need for such support and integrates it into a school environment, he said.
The Old Town clinics won’t replace RSU 34’s school nurse programs, Cyr said, but they provide the district with more resources.
There may be situations where students visit the school nurse first, and if more care is needed, they are referred to the clinic, Leeman said. Medical professionals there can give vaccines and prescribe medication, which school nurses can’t, she said.
“The clinic will act as a health care facility, so students and faculty can schedule appointments or walk in and be seen,” he said. “Families can bring students to the clinic even if they don’t go to school that day.”
Parents must enroll their children in the clinic, and forms will be issued to parents in the coming weeks. Parents are billed for services through PCHC’s billing department.
PCHC provides health care services to about 58,000 patients in Maine, of which nearly 70 percent are low-income people and the elderly, according to its website.