By Thomas Himes, Los Angeles Daily News
Los Angeles Unified is poised to expand its efforts to make access to health care easier for schoolchildren with an allocation of $50 million for wellness centers on campuses.
The scale of the plan to open facilities that will serve kids and community members alike is unprecedented for the district, noted Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health Executive Director Maryjane Puffer. “The concept for this process is that it’s full comprehensive oral-health, physical-health and mental-health delivery,” she said.
Over the next six months, school administrators and The Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health will create plans to spend the dollars on building new clinics and remodeling existing spaces at schools across LAUSD.
The idea is to reach as many in-need students as possible by placing clinics where there’s little access to medical care, Puffer said.
Three years ago, Los Angeles Unified allocated $36 million for 14 clinics. Twelve of those have been up and running for more than a year, with more than 20,000 patients treated.
LAUSD board member Monica Garcia said the wellness centers are effective because they’re conveniently located at schools, so they can get medical care to kids who wouldn’t otherwise see a doctor. Even kids who have health insurance, she added, have trouble making it to the doctor, as their parents can’t always provide transportation to the office or take time off from work.
“We need to put the wellness centers up in front, because there’s so much conversation right now about how to deal with people who the state has trouble reaching, the county has trouble reaching and sometimes LAUSD has trouble reaching — except for the children come to our schools,” Garcia said.
To determine prospective sites for the clinics, Puffer said, officials will review health data for areas where illness is common and doctors are rare, then home in on campuses that can spare the space, whether it’s through building a new facility or converting an old area.
The center at Monroe High School in North Hills, with a $10.8 million construction budget — including $10 million provided by L.A. County — is scheduled to open in November.
While board member Tamar Galatzan joined the unanimous vote last week to allocate the additional $50 million, she had concerns about putting a dollar amount on the project before planning its specifics.
Community partners would have been more helpful in opening Monroe’s clinic before releasing an actual budget, she said, noting the district’s predetermined funding level became a “stumbling point” because potential partners knew how much money the district had to spend.
“I think if we can get the partners and the plan lined up first, then we know how to maximize our dollars,” Galatzan said.
The district has been able to forgo costly operating expenses by handing the running of the wellness centers over to community clinics and other partners, who bill health insurance companies, said LAUSD spokeswoman Shannon Haber.
A pediatrician from Kaiser Permanente Community Fellowship stepped in to operate the health clinic at Hollywood High School two days a week, after a proposed provider backed out at the last minute. A school-district doctor, Rosina Franco, sees students on a third day, until a new partner takes over operations, Franco said
Hollywood High’s center features a waiting room, five exam rooms, a space designated for taking lab samples and two mental-health rooms. While the clinic requests students schedule visits in advance, a referral from the school nurse gets them an immediate appointment, Franco said.
The new funds could also be used to expand Hollywood High’s or other existing campus clinics, Puffer said. She recommended the district look to increase its dental offerings, as a dental pilot program at five wellness centers has seen more than 2,000 students, 117 of them suffering from broken teeth or abscesses.
“That’s a significant level of dental disease,” Puffer said. “How do you concentrate in class?”
Before voting to allocate the $50 million, school board member Bennett Kayser warned the district needs to make good on its promises to restore the health curriculum that was cut amid the budget crunches of the past several years. The classes teach healthy eating habits, hygiene and other preventative measures.
“Otherwise we’re just going to have recidivism with the wellness centers,” Kayser said.