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State Eliminates Funding For School-Based Health Centers

State funding for Maine’s 15 school-based health centers has been eliminated.

The health centers landed on the chopping block after the new state budget cut $10 million to Centers for Disease Control programs over the next two years. That’s raising concerns that students will have no way to access health care.

The school-based health center in Calais is one place where high school and middle school students could be deeply affected by the cuts. Superintendent Ronald Jenkins says roughly 80 percent of students are eligible for services.

“The majority of them do at some time receive some version of medical, dental, psychological. We do suicide and alcohol, drug prevention services through the health center. And yes, indeed, we do services around sex education,” he says.

Given the location in rural Washington County, Jenkins says having a health center at school provides critical access to health care.

“Many of the students that we serve would unlikely have services through any other entity,” he says.

The school health center in Calais is now facing a $46,000 loss — about a third of its annual funding — and Jenkins is worried about its future.

He’s not alone. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana says at least 1,000 students rely on the city’s four school health centers.

“They don’t have insurance. Or they don’t have a medical provider that they’re associated with. Or, they are in family situations where they might not get the health care that they need,” he says.

Botana says he’s working with Greater Portland Health, which provides the school-based health services, to try to plug the $180,000 gap in state funding.

In Lewiston, Joan Churchill of Community Clinical Services, which operates four health centers in Lewiston and Auburn schools, is facing a $200,000 loss. She’s worried she’ll be forced to cut medical services and only provide behavioral health care.

“We are hoping like crazy that we will be able to provide as much behavioral health counseling as the schools need,” she says.

The timing is terrible, Churchill says. The community is grappling with the recent suicide of a middle school student, and she can’t help but notice that the cuts are happening even though Maine just ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus of more than $100 million.

“It’s a sad day when we cut these programs all across the state, and we have such a significant surplus in one year,” she says.

“We’re forced to make compromises in order to get a budget done. Especially this year,” says state Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat from Westbrook who co-chairs the state’s Appropriations Committee.

Gattine says the LePage administration initially sought $130 million in cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Legislature was successful in preventing many of them. They preserved Head Start programs as well as MaineCare services for young adults and low income families. They also prevented rate cuts for mental health services.

“I think we were able to do a lot of really good things within the DHHS budget. These particular cuts to school-based services are really the exception, but that doesn’t mean it’s really upsetting and painful to the people who will be impacted,” Gattine says.

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards says school-based health centers account for more than $1 million of the $10 million the department will cut from the Centers for Disease Control over the next two years.

In an email, Edwards says instead of making across-the-board cuts to every program, DHHS kept some contracts whole, including substance use, tobacco and obesity prevention. The department, she says, will assist schools in finding alternative funding.

“I’m open to looking at all different kinds of funding options,” she says.

Rebecca Reynold, director of the school-based health center at Maranacook Community School in Readfield, says the health center set aside funding a few years ago to plan for something like this. But she says other health centers will have more immediate struggles.

“When a student isn’t healthy, they can’t learn. So this is going to be detrimental to some of these communities,” she says.