Howard opens first school-based wellness center

Howard County history was made Monday with the opening of the county's first school-based wellness center.

"This embodies a holistic approach to the health and well-being of our students," Superintendent Renee Foose said at the grand opening of the center at Bollman Bridge Elementary School.

Foose and numerous other local officials were on hand at the Jessup school, which has seen several students use the center since its soft opening a few weeks ago. With the official opening of the center, Bollman Bridge students can walk down the hallway to receive immediate treatment for lab tests, health assessments, immunizations, physicals for camp or sports, management of chronic medical problems and immediate treatment for illnesses and injuries.

Offering these services at the school, said Principal Jonathan Davis, means students can receive medical attention in "a matter of minutes, rather than hours," and miss less school. It's a benefit to parents, too, he said, who will no longer have to take the time off work to drive their children to the doctor's office.

The center is a result of what Foose described as a "long-standing and mutually beneficial" partnership with the Howard County Health Department and the county government. Health Officer Maura Rossman said the health department has been looking at opening a school-based wellness "for years," and a confluence of events lead to the opening Monday. The school was going through renovations and additions, and more funds opened up at the county level for the health department, Rossman said.

In looking at demographic data, the health department and the school system settled on Bollman Bridge because of higher population of students without a "medical home," or a pediatric primary care provider, Rossman said.

"One of our priorities is to ensure access to health care for all residents of all ages," she said. "This will connect children with access to medical care and a medical home. For those students with a primary care provider, it will supplement the care they're already provided. ... We know it's a time and cost factor to take children to the doctor and that will be mediated by this wellness center as well."

At the event, County Executive Ken Ulman noted that the health center is the latest in a string of programs and policies geared toward improving the health of Howard County residents, and "creating a model of public health."

"This is something that will make our community healthier, our schools healthier and enable children to come to school ready to learn," Ulman said.

So far, Davis said, about 250 students have been enrolled in the wellness center's program. A student must be enrolled by his or her parents or guardians to use the center, and the center is only open to Bollman Bridge students. No enrolled students will be turned away from the center because of an inability to pay, Rossman said, and bills will be sent to insurance companies for reimbursement. If a student has a primary care provider, the center will coordinate care with the provider with a sliding scale of fees based on family income.

The center is staffed by the health department; so far, full-time staff includes a pediatric nurse practitioner, a medical office assistant, a licensed social worker and a part-time pediatrician. Right now, that pediatrician is Rossman, but the health department is interviewing candidates for the job this week.

A conservative start-up cost for the center is about $250,000, Rossman said, and the system's Chief Facilities Operator Ken Roey said tweaks to the renovations to accommodate the center cost less than $10,000.

The center provides "pretty much anything you might receive through your regular care provider," like some medications and prescriptions, Rossman said, but not services like referrals to specialists such as endocrinologists.

Laura Herrera, deputy secretary of the public heath services with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said as work continues on the state level to reform health care delivery, health officials are looking more to school-based wellness centers, of which about 70 exist in Maryland.

"We look to schools to potentially be medical homes for children, and in areas where there's need, bridging the care for children who aren't getting the services they need," she said. "We think this will improve the health of children and give them long-term tools to be healthy. ... Moving into the future, this type of collaboration can change the delivery of health care services and provide health care where it's needed. It's getting the right care at the right time and the right place."

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