School-based health clinics that were forced to slash programs after having their funding unexpectedly cut in last year’s budget deal may get a one-time infusion of unspent state funds to restore services that are often a critical source of health care for some of the state’s lower-income students and families.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 8-3 Thursday to provide $1.2 million to the clinics by tapping into allocated but unspent money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is supported by tobacco settlement funds.

“I’m pleased at the outcome. It gets them two years of funding and makes a significant step forward in re-establishing school-based health clinics,” said Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, who sponsored the bill.

Lewiston and Auburn have four of the clinics, which traditionally provide dental and medical care, chronic illness management for diseases such as diabetes and asthma, counseling services for suicide prevention, drug and alcohol use prevention services, routine physical exams and immunizations, prescriptions, and laboratory testing. Most clinics reported scaling back services, some to just counseling, after losing state funding.

Educators say having the services on-site helps students without access to a doctor, and allows students to get care without missing much class time or their parents having to miss work. At a Jan. 18 public hearing on the bill, L.D. 1710, 37 people, including students, school staff and health care providers, urged the committee to restore clinic funding.

The direct cuts to the health centers last July were the result of the final state budget redirecting $10 million over two years from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to maintain reimbursement rates for primary care physicians under MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

A WASHINGTON COUNTY PLEA

School officials, who were blindsided by the funding cut, responded by reducing services at the clinics but vowed not to close their doors entirely because of the value to their communities. One administrator, Calais School District Superintendent Ron Jenkins, said in July that the district’s health center would remain open “if I have to go door-to-door and beg for money.”

Jenkins was among those who testified at the Jan. 18 hearing, when he said the Blue Devil Health Center at the Calais School Department was an important source of health care in rural Washington County.

“For some families, worrying about health care for their families is not an issue, but here, for many families … students would not see a doctor or other health professional” if there was no Blue Devil Health Center, he said.

On Thursday, human services committee members said the Fund for a Healthy Maine has a balance of more than $9 million that was previously allocated, but unspent. Those funds would normally roll over into the next budget cycle.

The committee voted to take $1.2 million from that overage to pay for two years of funding for the school-based health centers.

VOTE SPLIT ALONG PARTY LINES

Several lawmakers said they did not like the idea of providing a one-time allocation for the centers, which need ongoing funding, but they agreed the centers need money immediately.

“This is so important to me. We need to fund it at least for the next year,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York. She said the committee could take up how to spend the remaining Fund for a Healthy Maine money in the next legislative session.

Committee Chairman Sen. Eric Brakey suggested that schools pay directly for the clinics out of their state education funding, noting that the most recent biennium budget included an extra $162 million for schools.

“This is one-time funding and I think it kicks the can down the road, and we’ll be in the same situation a year from now,” said Brakey, R-Auburn. “It’s not ideal, but you have that $162 million that went to the school system.”

But Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, who has a clinic in her school district, said she didn’t want the cost of the centers shifted to schools because the clinics have always been considered on-site medical facilities.

“(My district) cut music and other programs, and with the added funding they’ve been able to re-institute programs they had to cut,” she said. “Education has to be paid for by the schools.”

The committee vote fell mostly along party lines, with Republican Rep. Richard Malaby, of Hancock, joining Democrats in the majority vote. The bill now goes to the House.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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