A Lot More Than Just Sex : High school medical clinics prove value in covering a wide range of needs

Nearly 10 years ago, an all-out assault was launched against the Los Angeles Unified School District's plan to open three free medical clinics on high school campuses. The hot-button issue: The clinics would offer contraceptives, family planning information and pregnancy counseling.

A phalanx of outraged parents soon materialized, and the big guns included the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. Within two years, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had begun a national campaign to have such clinics closed. The clinics, it was said, would sanction sexual promiscuity and turn the schools into an assembly line for abortion.

Fortunately, calmer thinking eventually prevailed. The clinics opened at three high schools--San Fernando, Jordan and Los Angeles--and have remained open. In 1993 a Los Angeles Times poll indicated that only 5% of parents had exercised their right to deny their children access to birth control information at the clinics. Soon the concerns about the possibility of a sudden leap in sexual activity eased. It turned out that the number of students seeking condoms amounted to only slightly more than one-tenth of 1% of the student bodies.

The work of the clinics extends far past birth control and is more vital than anyone could have thought at the outset.

On a typical day at San Fernando High recently, for example, a rape victim turned first to the clinic for help. Another girl asked for a pregnancy test and disclosed that she had been sexually molested and beaten. One teen-ager was having a stress-induced asthma attack. A fourth wanted her Norplant contraceptive removed from her arm. A fifth was there to get his tuberculosis medication, and a student-mother had shown up for a postpartum exam.

This indicates that the clinics are serving a population that is drastically in need of health care services and does not have the insurance or the income to seek private care. The beauty of it is that these $250,000-a-year clinics have, so far, been run with private money and not school district funds. Private donations are especially important now; a $1.7-million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has expired, and the Student Health Services Support Fund is scrambling to find other generous donors.

Another key role of the clinics is to be a training ground for nurse practitioners. In addition, every student who receives medical help at school is less likely to show up later at a hospital emergency room, which must decide whether to turn away an uninsured patient or risk absorbing the cost of care. Of course a hospital that treats those who cannot pay must ultimately pass the cost on to the insured.

The clinics have proven their value, and deserve the chance to continue their work.

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