School-Based Health Care Programs Receive $95 Million From Affordable Care Act

Obamacare is going to school.

In a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Education and Health & Human Services, the U.S. government is awarding $95 million provided by the Affordable Care Act to expand school-based health clinics.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on a conference call with reporters to announce the news. It is the second recent announcement that involves the joint work of the two government agencies, following the unveiling of guidelines for competing in the early childhood Race to the Top competition, which has states vie for pre-school program funding.

The health care awards will go toward capital planning in 278 school districts and health care programs that serve schools. The money, Sebelius said, will be used for updating facilities in order to expand their capacity. Sebelius also noted the health care law has already benefited students.

"Thanks to the law, it's now illegal for insurers to deny children coverage because of preexisting health conditions," she said. "It means that families don't have to worry any longer that their child will be locked out of the insurance market because of asthma or diabetes."

Sebelius linked the new initiative directly to that aspect of the Affordable Care Act, saying, "The investment we're announcing today builds on this exciting progress."

The clinics, she said, make schools safer and happier, and "also promote the kinds of healthy lifestyles we know can have huge lifetime benefits."

Duncan said expanding school clinics would help learning.

"Hundreds of thousands of additional students will be treated and served, increasing the amount of time they spend in the classroom learning," he said, calling the measure "an unprecedented investment in school-based health care."

Duncan and like-minded education reformers have been criticized for ignoring conditions such as poverty and other environmental factors, instead focusing on on teacher effectiveness as the key to improving schools.

But Duncan said school clinics are of "personal" interest to him, because when he ran Chicago's public schools he saw "the desperate need" for better health care for students. With the addition of health centers based out of schools, he said, the district saw grades rise.

"Many [students] said without those services there's just no way they would have continued in school, they would have dropped out," he said. "These services can literally be life-transforming."

He added that the goal is to increase access to school clinics, which also can offer preventative care to neighborhood parents.

Mary Wakefield, an HHS official in charge of the rewards program, said the money can not be used for personnel or other service issues.

"The funding that's made available is to support construction, renovation, and equipment purchases that are needed in the health centers," she said. Grant applications had to specify plans for spending the funds and show how they would increase access to care."

The program received 356 applications, and a review committee selected the winners.

Some school districts receiving the money include the Los Angeles Unified School District, the New Orleans School Board and the special New Orleans Recovery District.

Sebelius noted that the programs and school districts that applied to receive the grants now serve about 800,000 students; the grants would increase their capacity by 440,000.

The funding comes from $200 million allocated for solving infrastructure problems under the health care reform law.