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School-based health clinics open to students in Kalispell, Evergreen

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | September 7, 2021 12:00 AM

Students' access to affordable health care is now steps away from the classroom at two new health clinics at the Linderman Education Center in Kalispell and East Evergreen Elementary.

Lack of health insurance, transportation and time can be barriers to students getting the medical attention they need, whether it's treating a sudden onset of symptoms or a chronic illness, and that could ultimately affect their ability to attend school.

The two new clinics opened in January in partnership with the Kalispell-based nonprofit Greater Valley Health Center, formerly the county-run Flathead Community Health Center.

Jill Pate, a registered nurse and school-based collaboration specialist with the Greater Valley Health Center, said the school districts provided the space and her organization took care of the rest — staffing, medical equipment and supplies — made possible in part by a two-year grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation.

The clinics provide a variety of services, including sports physicals, annual wellness exams, minor injuries, treatment of chronic and acute illnesses, lab services such as blood work, and vaccinations and testing for Covid-19, flu and strep throat. The clinic at Linderman additionally offers testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

"They do have consent forms, so parents will need to sign off and give permission," said Susie McEwen, the clinic's nurse practitioner from the Greater Valley Health Center.

"We also have a program with Sykes (Pharmacy) where we can prescribe medications and the cost will never be higher than $4," Pate said. That deal includes items such as inhalers, insulin and EpiPens.

The clinic accepts both private and public insurance, including Medicaid, Medicare and Healthy Montana Kids. Patients also may be eligible for fee discounts based on a sliding scale. Eligible students will be accepted regardless of their ability to pay, Pate said.

The Student Health Center at Linderman, 124 Third Ave. E., is open to Kalispell Public Schools students only, in all grade levels. The school district also has a health clinic on West Center Street, which serves employees and their families.

The Evergreen Cares Clinic, located at East Evergreen Elementary, 585 E. Evergreen Drive, serves both district students and staff. The clinic has a separate, secure entrance, so patients don't have to walk through the school to access it, Barron said. Eventually, the district hopes services at the clinic will be available to the wider community.

THE SCHOOL-BASED health clinics are the most recent endeavor the school districts and community stakeholders have taken on over the past decade to connect students in need with the most basic necessities — food, clothing and shelter.

"Our focus is building relationships, but meeting the students where they're at — socially, emotionally, behaviorally, academically, whatever, and then try to wrap around everything we can to help keep them moving forward," Linderman Director Jodie Barber said.

The two school districts have separately discussed adding medical care to that list over the past few years, according to Barber and Evergreen School District Superintendent Laurie Barron. Both noted that sizable segments of their student populations come from low-income families, who face obstacles when seeking health care. In the Evergreen School District, 89% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

"I think of our students who are homeless, and our kids, you know, who are in Sparrow's Nest or in shelters … they can come here and get services," Barber said. "It's so, so huge. And if that's what's going to keep them in school for a little bit longer that is totally a win for us."

The clinic expands the reach school nurses currently provide throughout Kalispell Public Schools, which has two high schools, a middle school and six elementary schools.

Unlike Kalispell, the Evergreen School District does not have school nurses at either the elementary school or the junior high, which Barron said can be particularly stressful and challenging during the Covid pandemic with 700 students and 135 employees.

"To have health care services right here in the community helps make for healthier schools, which helps make for a healthier community," Barron said.

ON WEDNESDAY, Barber, McEwen and Pate were excited to showcase the clinic at Linderman. The once-empty space below the gym stage, which used to be locker rooms, has been transformed into a brightly lit waiting room and examination room decorated with colorful student artwork.

"Having a clinic focused on adolescents is unique," McEwen said. "So we really want to have a space that's welcoming and safe."

Barber expressed her vision to have a health clinic in the space during a 2020 tour of the building, which was renovated as part of a $28.8 million high school district bond issue. The space now occupied by the clinic remained unfinished at the time, and it was Barber's hope money would be available to build a clinic for students.

"I think this is amazing to have this," McEwen said. "It's really where you reach people."

"We encourage students to stop by and meet us and families," Pate added.

The Linderman clinic is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The East Evergreen Elementary clinic is open from 8 to 11:30 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays. Appointments can be made by calling 406-607-4900, or after hours, 406-756-2912.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.