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Oregon lawmakers to push for in-school medical center funding

With mental health issues among adolescents on the rise, advocates say school-based health centers need more funding
Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center's Century High School clinic in in Hillsboro, Oregon. | ©PORTLAND TRIBUNE, REPUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION
November 7, 2023

As Oregon adolescents continue to struggle with their mental health, advocates and supporters in the state Legislature will try again to boost funding for more school-based health centers that provide physical, behavioral and preventive services to students.

Oregon’s House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on upcoming legislation that would increase funding for Oregon’s 85 school-based health centers and pave the way for more. National nonprofit Mental Health America ranked Oregon last in the country earlier this year for its high prevalence of mental illness among youth coupled with its lack of access to services. 

Doug Riggs, a lobbyist with Northwest Policy Advocates, told The Lund Report that 44% of visits to the centers for the 2021-2022 school year were for behavioral health services, up from 25% in 2019. Some schools see up to 80% of visits for mental health services, he said. 

“Anxiety, depression, suicide ideation are all things that (the centers) are seeing on a pretty regular basis,” he said. “There are endless national studies that show if you have physical, mental health or oral health issues, your ability to succeed in school is greatly diminished. These are resources that students need.”

previous bill boosting funding for the centers fizzled last legislative session following the Republican-led Senate walkout. The bill would have allocated $15.7 million from the state’s general fund while issuing lottery bonds worth $10 million. The bill had broad support from groups including the Oregon Primary Care Association, the Multnomah County Community Health Center, the Urban League of Portland and others. 

State Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, is sponsoring a similar bill for the six-week legislative session that begins in February. Dexter was unavailable for comment. 

“We were, frankly, stunned that it didn’t pass last session,” Maureen Hinman, executive director of the Oregon School-Based Health Alliance, told The Lund Report, who also cited Oregon’s fourth highest rate of absenteeism nationally. “We’re hoping to really be able to talk to a lot of legislators to emphasize how important it is.”

Parents seeking care for their kids may struggle with co-pay, taking time off work, traveling long distances in rural areas or even getting appointments for mental health services or primary care, Hinman said. She said the centers are mostly based in high schools and help fill those gaps in the state’s health care system. Most school-based health centers have behavioral health services that include a mix of counseling and other support, she said. 

Currently, 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties have at least one student-based health center. Roughly, 66,000 school-aged youths had access to the centers during the 2021-2022 school year. 

The centers get $60,000 annually from the state on top of insurance payments and other sources of funding. Hinman said the centers haven’t received an increase in funding since 2011. The draft bill would give them a 10% bump along with regular inflationary increases, she said.   

The draft bill would also make planning grants available to schools that want to create their own center, as well as more funding for bonds to help with construction costs, she said. 

Additionally, the draft bill would create grants to help the centers to increase mental health services, Hinman said.  

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via X @jakethomas2009.