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Mobile health unit to visit local high schools

By Evan Triantafilidis

SHEFFIELD — The arrival of a new mobile health unit at two regional high schools this fall will mark the start of free services offered to teens as part of a coordinated care effort.

The idea behind bringing the van, owned by Community Health Programs, to Monument Mountain Regional High School and Mount Everett Regional School this year is to provide a more direct impact on students who may benefit from health services they may not receive otherwise.

Chris Tucci, deputy director of Railroad Street Youth Project, presented some alarming statistics to the Southern Berkshire Regional School District school committee at its Aug. 22 meeting, setting up the need for the proposed teen health van.

More than half of high school seniors in Berkshire County are reporting symptoms of depression, according to RSYP’s bi-annual survey given to teens across the county.

The latest data from the Berkshire Youth Development Project, a program under the Berkshire United Way, shows a steep rise from 23 percent of seniors and 27 percent of sophomores reporting depressive symptoms in 2017, up to 55 and 48 percent, respectively.

The dramatic increase in self-reported symptoms among high school students, along with other health factors, has prompted the coordinated care effort that will make its debut this month.

Tucci said the findings in the latest survey are a cause for concern, especially when teens get referred to a service and don’t end up using it.

“These are numbers that are in line with the national average, but they’re also not numbers that we are happy with,” said Tucci.

Tucci said that less than half of teens who receive a referral to a behavioral health service are following up by going to their scheduled appointments.

Working with Volunteers In Medicine Berkshires, a Great Barrington-based healthcare facility specializing in running volunteer-based medical programs, the mobile health unit will be able to provide on-site services at Monument Mountain Regional High School, Mount Everett Regional School and at the RSYP drop-in center in Great Barrington starting this fall.

Ilana Steinhauer, executive director at VIM Berkshires, says she recently met with providers — who will eventually receive referrals from the teen health van — and anticipates the mobile health unit to be functioning at schools next month.

With the use of volunteers, Steinhauer added, the services provided would come at no cost to teens.

By eliminating the processing of health insurance, parent involvement is also eliminated, except for signing a waiver for additional services the van can provide.

“CHP has this amazing van,” said Steinhauer. “What would it look like if we could provide free services on a mobile van to teens in the places where they are?”

At first, students may use the van to accommodate complaints of a sore throat or tiredness, said Steinhauer. But over time, she hopes that will change.

“The point of entry for most teens into a therapeutic relationship is usually something simple like a sore throat, or a feeling of tiredness,” said Steinhauer. “Once they are in there and the trust is there, we are able to address all of the other things.”

CHP’s existing mobile health unit has one ophthalmology exam room and is kept running by Health Resources and Services Administration grant funds.

The new van, which will be paid for by the state, will come with two exam rooms and extra space to close off a third private room, if needed. Both mobile health vans will stay in the CHP parking lot when not in use.

The new mobile health unit will be equipped with a nurse, who will be funded through a grant and CHP; a care coordinator, funded through RSYP; and volunteer providers. The nurse position has already been filled by a full-time employee at CHP who plans to work in a collaborative effort with the physicians and staff at Macony Pediatrics. The care coordinator will be responsible for making a referral, if needed, and following up with students who receive one.

Everett Lamm, chief medical officer for CHP, endorsed the concept of collaborative care as one that could spread throughout the county and state.

“We at CHP, as we’ve been expanding our services, we think that it’s time for us to get further out into the community,” said Lamm. “I believe this will be a model we can bring to other parts of the county.”

The trio of representatives from RYSP, VIM and CHP backed the creation of a three-hour time block for the van to be on school grounds, one day per week, in alternating weeks.

The school committee’s unanimous approval of $12,000 to help cover the cost of care coordination on the mobile health unit was not met without some questions of liability.

School committee member Dennis Sears endorsed the idea, but with precautions of how the town would be covered in the case of a malpractice suit.

“We kind of put ourselves in an interesting position if we do this,” said Sears. “I think we need to make sure we are covered legally if we’re going to have things happen on our campus that are dealing with medical practices taking place on our campus, which can expose us to an awful lot of liability.”

Steinhauer said that the health van is a fully insured and licensed health center that travels with its own insurance.

The Austen Riggs Center, Fairview Hospital and Macony Pediatrics plan to work collaboratively with the mobile health unit once a referral is made to ensure a student completes the referral process.

“This is such a simple way, and such a gift, because of all the other agencies wanting to do this,” said Steinhauer. “We really think this can save quite a few lives.”