Health center at Blue Ridge moves ahead

Plans call for an expansion of the offerings across town at the Health Center at Lincoln.


WALLA WALLA -- Plans are moving forward to establish a school-based health center at Blue Ridge Elementary.

The Walla Walla School Board on Tuesday night approved expanding Student Health Options, currently offered at Lincoln High School through the Health Center at Lincoln, to serve Blue Ridge students at the elementary school.

The Health Center at Lincoln is in its fourth year serving students in a facility adjacent to the school. Students have access to basic medical treatment at the center, which also offers mental health counseling and sets up referrals for more specialized medical needs.

The center served almost all of the school's nearly 200 students last year, and had close to 1,700 office visits throughout the year.

The board voted 3-2 to support the expansion, with board members Max Carrera, Anne Golden and Cindy Meyer voting yes and Dan Hess and Jim Lehmann voting no.

The vote followed an energized public work session where representatives from the Family Medical Center on Rose Street voiced concern about expanding Student Health Options to an elementary school.

Carrera, the board president, was the first to ask whether a Blue Ridge center would compete with other local providers. His question spurred close to an hour-long discussion on potential ramifications of a school-based center serving young children on community health centers also serving that population.

Seth Whitmer, clinic manager at Family Medical Center, said a school-based health center serving young children would have a direct impact on the Family Medical Center. Whitmer said the opening of the Lincoln center saw office visits decrease at his clinic, but that an elementary school-based center would have a much bigger, negative effect.

Blue Ridge has a high population of low-income students, as well as Latino students, with many who are either served or qualify to be served at Family Medical Center. Blue Ridge also houses the federal and state Head Start/ECEAP public preschool program. Children in the program would also qualify to be treated at the proposed health center.

Specific data on how many Blue Ridge students see physicians at Family Medical Center, or how many do not have a primary doctor, was not provided during the work session.

But Lincoln's Health Center executive director, Holly Howard, said a survey of families at Blue Ridge showed a great need to help the school's children access medical services. As at Lincoln, the purpose of the center at Blue Ridge will be to meet children's basic medical needs, or get them access to more specialized care, in a setting where they will be easily reached.

Whitmer said he had researched communities with similar school-based health centers to determine a potential impact on his clinic. Family Medical Center is a federally-qualified medical services provider, meaning it accepts patients whether they have insurance or not.

Whitmer and others representing Family Medical Center, including physicians, expressed a concern that a Blue Ridge center would result in fewer pediatric patient visits to their center. A decrease in young patients would have a direct impact on the center's ability to serve adult patients, Whitmer said.

Supporters of the Blue Ridge expansion said there may be the potential for getting more students referred to clinics such as the Family Medical Center. Blue Ridge Principal Kim Doepker said her school would make significant efforts to get families to follow through on referrals.

Carrera concluded the discussion saying he hoped the board's decision, if in support of the center, would provide an opportunity to partner and strengthen relations with Family Medical Center and other providers.


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