Pennsylvania officials say school-based health centers are needed to bridge equity gaps

Pennsylvania health officials tour the school-based health center at Building 21 Lab School, a small district high school in North Philadelphia, on Thurs., Dec. 8, 2022. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

Pennsylvania health officials tour the school-based health center at Building 21 Lab School, a small district high school in North Philadelphia, on Thurs., Dec. 8, 2022. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

If a student at Building 21 Lab School has a headache, stomach issues, or is feeling sick, they can see a doctor or an advanced practice nurse almost immediately, without ever leaving the premises.

That’s because Building 21, a small district high school in North Philadelphia, opened a school-based health center last fall.

These kinds of health centers operate within school walls, and provide medical, behavioral, and sexual health care to students on site, regardless of insurance status. Supporters say it often saves students and their families a trip to a doctor’s office elsewhere.

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Pennsylvania health leaders say this model of care is crucial in expanding access to health services and improving health equity in communities, especially among underserved youth. State Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Denise Johnson said she’d like to see a center in every school, to the benefit of even more students.

“[They don’t] have to worry about parents taking time off of work or getting transportation or having a [primary] doctor,” Johnson said during a visit Thursday to Building 21, “and really having someone with credible health information where they can ask detailed questions and make sure that they’re getting the right answers.”

Pennsylvania health officials tour the school-based health center at Building 21 Lab School, a small district high school in North Philadelphia, on Thurs., Dec. 8, 2022. (Nicole Leonard/WHYY)

Only a small percentage of all schools in the state have these health centers. Johnson said while research shows clear benefits, schools may face barriers in funding and staffing a site. She added that there needs to be a demand among students, too.

“All of those have to come together to make a successful clinic,” Johnson said.

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The state legislature awarded more than $2.8 million this year to expand behavioral health services at school-based health centers.

The Pennsylvania School-Based Health Alliance supports about 33 centers across the state, including the center at Building 21, which fully opened at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.

It operates as a joint collaboration between nonprofit Education Plus Health and Family Practice and Counseling Network, a federally qualified health center.

Julie Cousler, executive director at Education Plus Health and Pennsylvania School-Based Health Alliance, said a partnership like this brought in more resources to offer a broader range of services to students.

“[It created] the ability to more easily provide vaccines, do vaccine clinics,” Cousler said. “Sexual health continues to be one of the leading services that we provide here, but also physicals, sports physicals.”

Officials say these centers work alongside other education programs and staff, like school nurses, social workers, counselors, and other mental health services.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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