AUGUSTA — Several leaders of rural schools in Maine have called for lawmakers to restore funding for centers where students can receive services ranging from mental health counseling to routine physicals.

Democratic Rep. James Handy’s bill would provide $1.2 million of state funding for school health centers that lost funding after last-minute negotiations in the 2018 budget. Handy’s emergency bill would provide $600,000 for this school year and the school year starting this fall.

“The farther a community is from urgent care or medical care of any kind, the more valuable these kinds of centers become,” Handy said. In Auburn, officials are now charging students for mental health services and counseling while eliminating services that run the gamut from diagnosis of chronic illness, to routine physical exams, to oral health services.

Many working families who don’t qualify for Medicaid can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles they now face, said Joan Churchill, chief executive officer of Community Clinical Services in Lewiston, whose school health centers are down to providing medical services three days a week. “We have a lot of students that we’re not able to help,” she said.

Handy’s bill is set for a hearing Thursday.

The state health department doesn’t yet have an opinion on the bill, said spokeswoman Emily Spencer. The department will help schools find alternative funding, she has said.

But Handy, who represents part of Lewiston, said he is optimistic that the Legislature’s appropriations committee will restore funding for the state’s 15 schools with health centers.

Those schools serve about 11,600 students who had about 14,300 visits to school centers in the school year ending in 2016, according to George Shaler, the Maine Statistical Analysis Center Director of the Muskie School of Public Service at University of Southern Maine.

While many students are covered by MaineCare or private insurance, the state funding largely supported uncompensated care.

“They had to scale back services drastically,” Shaler said. “They’re all still open, but they’re not open as long, and they’re not able to do what they did prior to the cuts.”

Several schools spend less than $75,000 on the health centers, while several spend up to $125,000, according to the state Department of Education’s recent survey of a dozen centers. The centers’ services also include chronic disease management, substance use treatment and prevention and reproductive health services, according to the survey.

The funding for the programs was cut because of a budget deal requiring the department to eliminate millions of dollars in funding.

The cuts killed $191,000 out of a $330,000 budget for four health centers in more-populous Portland, which The Portland Press Herald reported is making up the gap with fundraising, efficiencies and an extra $2.7 million in education funding provided by the budget.

Health centers at schools that got especially hit by the funding cut in the $7.1 billion, two-year budget include the small community of Calais on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Kids don’t tend to see a doctor regularly, and may do so only if they become ill, Handy said.

“And what that means is a parent needs to take the child out of school, take time off from work if they’re working,” Handy said. That can be a struggle for families that are just barely getting by, he said.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:19 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2018, to correct the district of Rep. James Handy.

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