Breaking ground on the Westside

Legal challenges and political spats have obscured the benefits of the federal Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare" by its critics. But one was on display last Thursday night inside the Lowell School library. Mock-ups of a new school-based health-care clinic rested on easels, and more than a dozen Westsiders, sitting in kid-sized plastic chairs around thigh-high tables, reviewed the plans, largely voicing approval.

The one-story, 2,500-square-foot clinic, designed to resemble neighboring houses, will likely be built this summer on a patch of park ground adjacent to Lowell School, paid for by a $500,000 grant Missoula County's Partnership Health Center was awarded last July. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's School-Based Health Center Capital Program gave out about 200 such grants in fiscal year 2011. The Lowell School clinic will be the first in Montana.

It'll be located in one of Missoula's poorer neighborhoods. More than a quarter of Lowell students—kindergartners through fifth graders—qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 70 are homeless. "With the numbers come some at-risk and underserved students," Principal Brian Bessette said during the meeting. Which is why, when Partnership Health Center landed the grant and contacted Missoula County Public Schools about where the clinic might go, Lowell was chosen.

According to the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care, these clinics have been found to significantly increase student access to health care, reducing inappropriate emergency room visits and Medicaid expenditures, while lowering rates of student absenteeism and tardiness. Students are more likely to use mental-health services, leading to fewer discipline referrals. All of which helps foster academic success.

Partnership Health Center already provides care regardless of income at its two downtown locations. About six Partnership personnel will staff the Lowell School clinic, offering primary care and dental and behavioral health services. Partnership Director Kim Mansch said her employees are already "fighting to come work here."

Jerry Nelson, who's lived down the road from Lowell School for 56 years, attended Thursday's meeting, and he told Bessette and Mansch, "You're breaking new ground, there's no question about that."

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