School-Based Health Care: One Answer to Ohio Children’s Unmet Health Care Needs

By Kelly Vyzral, Senior Health Policy Associate, Children’s Defense Fund Ohio

February is School-Based Health Care Awareness Month. This is a great opportunity to talk about improving access to health care for Ohio’s children.

All children deserve to grow up healthy with the opportunity to thrive into adulthood. But the reality is that in many parts of Ohio access to the components of a healthy life are not readily available to children and families. In Ohio in 2019, 18.1% of children lived in poverty, one in six children faced hunger, and an estimated 69,000 school-age children were not able to access the health care they need.

According to the Health Resources & Services Administration Data Warehouse, 51 of Ohio’s 88 counties have been designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas, areas where accessibility of primary care and mental health services and providers is inadequate to meet the needs of that geographic region. Children who are Black, brown, and from low-income areas – especially in Ohio’s Appalachian region, typically have worse health outcomes and fewer opportunities to access needed care.

The following is a snapshot of how Ohio children fared prior to the pandemic:

School-based health care often represents the only access to needed health care services for children in many areas of Ohio, and the issue brief I authored for Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio Getting Care to Children and Families: School-based, Community-Connected Health Care, dives into Ohio’s current system of school-based health care, shining light on the barriers and opportunities to expand services. There is also an emphasis on ensuring these services are community-connected care so that not only the child, but their whole family can get their health needs met so they are able to support their child’s healthy development and children are better able to thrive, learn, and flourish into adulthood.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years layered a public health crisis on top of a health system that was already thread-bare with a lack of providers, overburdened, and inaccessible for many children and families. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many of the measures we use to gauge children’s health have trended negatively – including immunization rates, child health screenings, dental services, and mental health services. The pandemic has only amplified the need to get care to where the children are.

We know children learn better when they are healthy, but many children suffer from chronic conditions, such as asthma and untreated medical and mental health needs, that affect their readiness to learn and often keep them out of the classroom altogether. In fact, 1 in 10 Ohio children miss more than 7 days of school each year due to illness or injury. Making health care services available in schools is one of the best ways to remove barriers to health care, and ensure that children’s needs are being met, enabling them to attend school regularly, and ready to learn.