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School health centers grow in California

About 20 years ago California was one of the first states to try a new concept of setting up full-service health clinics on school campuses in underserved areas.

Today – with the help of federal grant money and a growing need for services – these clinics are an integral part of many schools’ attempts to improve public health.

In 2011 California won more than $15.5 million in federal grants under the Affordable Care Act to upgrade existing clinics or open new sites.

The law set aside $200 million dollars to be distributed around the country from 2010-2013. So far, sites in California have received about 15 percent of that funding.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 39 grants have gone to California school health centers.

Community clinic systems and county health departments received the money. And some school districts won grants including Los Angeles and Oakland. Districts in more rural areas also were targeted for federal funding, including Fresno and Stockton in the Central Valley and Konocti schools in Northern California near Clear Lake.  

Serena Clayton, executive director of the California School Health Centers Association, says there were 108 school health centers in California in 2000. Today, there are 183, with more sites under construction.

Clayton says Alameda County is one area of the state that has led the way to embrace school health centers. She notes Alameda had five school health centers in 1999 – today that number has nearly quadrupled.

In the Central Valley some providers are using mobile clinics to reach rural areas.  And at Riverbank High School, near Modesto, a student group got the ball rolling to open a health center on its campus.

Clayton says that health providers have found schools to be a good location to reach people they otherwise might not see: children, adolescents and adults without insurance.

“We need to put health care where people want to receive it,” she says.

And Clayton says this approach has attracted new patients for health assessments and dental screenings. Particularly, she says, in this tough economy.

“More kids are coming in and more uninsured,” Clayton says.

The majority of school health centers in California are on high school campuses. About a third are at elementary schools and the rest are at middle schools or are “school-linked” by medical mobile vans.

About two thirds of students at these schools qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The federal government says it will announce another round of grants for school health centers this spring.

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