, Salem, MA

March 28, 2014

Officials push for expert medical staff at high school

By John Castelluccio
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — There was general consensus among local officials Tuesday that behavioral health services are in great need at Peabody High, and data presented by city Health Director Sharon Cameron further demonstrated how overtaxed the school’s two nurses are now.

Student counterparts, who attended the School Committee session that night in preparation for the upcoming Student Government Day, were also excited at the prospect of the new health center.

“I would have loved to see this my freshman year,” said senior and student mayor Matt Mogavero. “Especially with the chronic illnesses and mental health aspect, it should be a staple in the high school. [Students] can go to teachers ... with problems, but they’re not always equipped to give the best [professional advice].”

Cameron said the nurses saw 1,431 students last year in more than 9,300 visits. Twenty-one percent of PVMHS students, about 389 teens, met with nurses for behavioral health counseling, she said, adding that school counselors and the school resource officer reported meeting with an additional 170 students who sought them out.

Cameron says the average for behavioral health issues reported by the 52 student-based health centers in the state is 26 percent of students.

She said about 300 Peabody students last year needed medication administered regularly for chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes. Nurses received 59 visits from students who experienced breathing trouble because their asthma wasn’t being properly controlled.

Nineteen percent of students were diagnosed with asthma in 2009 and reported losing at least one school day for asthma-related illness. Cameron said it costs $125 to $200 to manage an asthma attack in a school health center versus $500 in a hospital emergency room.

Eight diabetic students made more than 1,500 visits to the nurse’s office during the year.

Cameron said that “like any other large urban high school,” Peabody High also has students who struggle with substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Twenty-eight percent of students admitted to binge drinking in a 2011 youth health survey, and 10 percent said they improperly used prescription medications at least once.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of students reported “seriously considering suicide” in the past year.

The Peabody center will be run by the nonprofit organization North Shore Community Health Inc., which operates a teen health center at Salem High School and family clinics in Peabody, Salem and Gloucester.

Typical services offered at family centers are primary healthcare, physicals, reproductive services, nutrition counseling, health education, assessment and treatment of acute problems, workshops and referrals.

The Peabody center would occupy about 900 square feet where the school’s wood shop is currently located and employ a behavioral counselor, a pediatric nurse practitioner and a medical assistant. There would be a waiting room, reception area and exam room with quick access to an ambulance from the service road behind that portion of the building.

Maggie Brennan, the CEO of NSCHI, said the capital expense for the project is $190,000, and operational costs will be about $160,000 annually.

The startup costs and first two years of operation have already been covered with an $86,000 federal grant and contributions from the J.B. Thomas — Lahey Foundation ($100,000), Boston Children’s Hospital ($160,000) and the McCarthy Foundation ($10,000).

Mayor Ted Bettencourt said all indications are that those funding sources will continue. Cameron noted that there’s a five-year commitment for Peabody attached to the Lahey funding.

Brennan said NSCHI anticipates health insurance reimbursements will cover any gap in funding, but the organization may turn to fundraising or other internal resources if necessary.

She also said health services are delivered to students regardless of their ability to pay. If students aren’t insured, NSCHI assists them or their families to identify and enroll in insurance programs.

The health center is slated to open by the end of October.

You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.