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South Valley School Health Center Bracing To Close

May Ortega | KUNM
Sabrina Owens leads the school-based health center at RFK.

Students and adults can get free, confidential health care at a school-based health center in Albuquerque's South Valley.

But leaders at the health center at Robert F. Kennedy Charter School say they’re anticipating they’ll lose their funding and shut down.

Students know. The principal knows. The two other schools the RFK center serves also know it will probably close at the end of June.

This school-based health center helped reduce the number of STDs at RFK from 80 cases a year to five. And they’ve gone from seeing 17 pregnancies a year to having one or two.

Director Sabrina Owens said that could all come to an end.

"Most of our kids know that it’s coming up and they’re already starting to freak out," she said.

State Department of Health funding to the tune of $105,000 a year keeps this center open. But they have to apply for state money again this year and DOH is now prioritizing school-based health centers that have a medical sponsor, like a hospital. But RFK doesn’t have one.


Owens said if that doesn’t change, it will definitely close at the end of this school year. KUNM asked if there's a plan B if that were to happen.

"Nope. The clinic closes and we just – we’re done June 30th, the contract ends," Owens replied. "So we would transition all the kids out to everywhere that we could."


School-based health center sponsors are expected to provide operational support and oversight. They’re also expected to step in and take over if a center runs out of money.

Related: School-Based Health Centers, Explained


DOH tried to help by putting RFK in touch with potential sponsors, Owens said, but it’s been one rejection after another.


"And so the risks, they just don’t want a part of it or their funding is already limited and they don’t have an availability to expand," she said. "So we haven’t had any success with that."


Jim Farmer said the new sponsorship guideline was put in place to help these centers. He’s with the state Department of Health.


"Those folks who don’t have a medical sponsor really, really, really struggle with some of the infrastructure around billing, around credentialing through Medicaid," he said.


Farmer stressed that the department doesn’t anticipate any centers shutting down and that lacking a sponsor won’t spell the end as long as they present a solid plan for financial sustainability.


“If they said ‘Hey, I want to use my Medicaid and the school’s money,’ or ‘I got a grant opportunity from something else. Here’s how I’m going to be sustainable with or without DOH money,’ if that includes a medical sponsorship, great. If it doesn’t, great,'" Farmer said.


Credit May Ortega | KUNM
An exam room at RFK's school-based health center.

So what happens if a facility like RFK just can’t find a way to bring in enough cash? Farmer was adamant that every center should be able to figure something out, but he also acknowledged that RFK isn’t having any luck.

"That breaks my heart because I know for example, kids at this school, they need this service and it’s phenomenal for those high-risk kids who need it," he said. "What do you do?"


What do you do?


Farmer has two recommendations for school-based health centers who need DOH funding: apply and take the process seriously.


"I think if anybody does that, they’d be fine," he said.


But he also said there’s no guarantees.


DOH spent $2.5 million to fund nearly 50 centers last year. This year they have about the same amount, plus another $1.5 million for new centers and expanded services.


RFK applied. Owens said that at this point, it’s out of her hands.

A frequent visitor to RFK’s center is 18-year-old Serenity Zubia. She stops by once a week for therapy.


"It helps a lot that they’re here because there’s an outlet," the RFK senior said. "So it’s like you don’t have to hold everything in and wait until you explode to get it out."


Zubia knows they’re preparing to close in a couple of months. And she’s worried about her classmates.


"It kind of makes me sad and a little bit stressed out because it’s like, we kind of rely on them so much in a way," she said. "If we don’t have them, then who are we gonna have?"


If the center shuts down, Zubia said, it'll feel like losing a part of the school’s family.

Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

May joined KUNM's Public Health New Mexico team in early 2018. That same year, she established the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and received a fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists. She join Colorado Public Radio in late 2019.
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