"Obamacare" in Alberton


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Fencing surrounds a patch of disturbed ground adjacent to the Westside's Lowell Elementary School, the site where workers recently began constructing Montana's first school-based healthcare clinic. The clinic is being paid for with a $500,000 grant to Missoula Partnership Health Center funded by the federal Affordable Care Act. When the clinic's complete in the spring, it will offer Lowell students and their families, many of which are low-income, improved access to healthcare. Studies have shown school-based clinics reduce inappropriate emergency room visits and Medicaid expenditures, while lowering rates of student absenteeism and tardiness.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a chief author of the controversial healthcare reform law, announced two weeks ago another such clinic for Alberton. Superior's Mineral Regional Health Center, located about 30 miles west of Alberton, landed the $455,000 School-Based Health Center Capital Grant. Construction of the 2,000-square-foot clinic is expected to begin this summer on a piece of school property near the football field, giving the community of 417 local medical services for the first time.

"This means kids in Alberton and their families will no longer have to choose between gas money to get to a clinic in Missoula or getting the health care they need," Baucus said in a statement.

Jim Baldwin, Alberton's superintendent of schools, says that's no exaggeration. He says 95 percent of Alberton residents travel to Missoula for healthcare, and that translates into significant time away from school and work. Any healthcare the district's 160 elementary school students do receive is provided by the school nurse, who comes one day a week.

Exacerbating the dearth of local medical services, Baldwin says, is poverty. When he came to the district 15 years ago, about 30 percent of the district's students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches. Today, that number is over 70 percent. He calls the clinic "a really good deal for everybody concerned." It's primarily intended for students, but will eventually be open to the entire community.

Meanwhile, in Billings, the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch also recently won a school-based health clinic grant intended to improve tele-medicine services to rural schools in the region.


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