Education and health officials vowed Thursday to save school health centers that were hit by surprise cutbacks included in the state budget compromise that ended Maine’s government shutdown on July 3.

The cuts amount to more than $1 million over two years and would affect 15 school-based health centers, said Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Samantha Edwards.

School officials said they were blindsided by the cuts, which were part of a $5 million-per-year reduction in financing for the Fund for a Healthy Maine. The $10 million was redirected to help maintain reimbursement rates for primary care physicians under Medicaid.

Seven contracts for health centers operated in schools in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Calais, Bowdoin, Brewer, Norway and Manchester, totaling $547,639 per year, were canceled, Edwards said.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana says the abrupt cancellation of the contracts “is not a good way of doing business.”

As part of the July 3 state budget agreement, schools received an additional $162 million over two years, with the amount sent to each school determined by a complex funding formula. Superintendents in Calais and Portland said they would consider using the additional education funding to keep the school health centers operating.

“It is absolutely possible,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana in Portland, which received an additional $2.7 million. “We care deeply about this service.”

In Portland, the school centers operate at Portland, Casco Bay and Deering high schools and at King Middle School.

The state contract covered $191,000 of a $330,000 budget for the health centers.

“We are committed to continuing to provide these services,” said Ann Tucker, chief financial officer for Greater Portland Health, which works with Portland schools on the health centers. Tucker said 941 students were served by the health centers.

CENTERS VITAL TO STUDENT HEALTH

The centers provide basic medical care and referrals for students who are uninsured, have Medicaid or have private insurance. It also can fill the gaps in services that Medicaid doesn’t cover, such as dental care.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said the health centers serving schools in Lewiston and Auburn are extremely beneficial to students. He said conversations haven’t started yet on whether to continue the health centers.

“I think it would be more palatable if it was considered a stopgap measure,” said Webster, explaining that perhaps the cuts would be restored in the next two-year state budget developed in 2019.

At St. Mary’s Hospital, Joan Churchill, chief executive of the community clinical services that run the health centers in Lewiston and Auburn schools, said the centers are vital to student health. If the $200,000 in state cuts are allowed to stand, that would devastate the program, Churchill said.

“We haven’t been offered anything yet from the schools, but we will be meeting in the next week,” she said.

Lewiston received an additional $2.1 million in state funding as part of the state budget agreement, and Auburn netted an extra $1.2 million.

The Fund for a Healthy Maine receives $50 million per year from tobacco settlement money and it funds a variety of health and tobacco cessation programs.

Other programs that were cut because of the loss of money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine include administrative services, anti-smoking advertising and pharmacy benefits related to nicotine replacement therapy.

PROGRAM FUNDING IN OTHER STATES

In Calais, Superintendent Ronald Jenkins said the $160,000 in extra funding that the school district received under the budget deal already had been spoken for when he discovered the state had canceled the $46,000 contract for the school-based health center.

“We signed that contract with the state in April (for the school health center), and we fully expected they were going to honor it,” Jenkins said. “We planned our budgets around it.”

Jenkins said the district will probably keep the school health center operating by financing a heating and air-conditioning replacement at the elementary school over a few years to free up cash for the health center.

Botana, the Portland superintendent, said the abrupt cancellation of the contracts “is not a good way of doing business.”

Edwards, the DHHS spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement that human services agencies in other states generally don’t provide these school health services.

“In other states, the Department of Education partners with community health organizations to provide school-based health center services,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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