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Lockwood School will become the newest option for school-based health care in the Billings area. 

St. Vincent Healthcare will convert a former mobile unit into a permanent primary care clinic in the school's parking lot, aiming for a February opening. 

The clinic will be open to all, not just students. Officials are still working out hours and operation procedures, but it will likely operate Monday through Friday.

"It's been about six years of trying to find the right approach," said Don Christman, Lockwood's director of special programs.

The school approached several health care providers this year, and talks quickly heated up with St. Vincent.

“With no medical services currently available in Lockwood, as we assessed this, we just felt like it was something that could be a good partnership and was aligned with our mission,” said Director of Operations for St. Vincent Physicians Tim Pellandini. “One thing that we saw with the school is that it’s a great access point.”

The school-based health center model has been lauded by national health groups. Research has shown that in-school care improves attendance, which in turn improves academic performance. One study found that students using in-school clinics were more likely to graduate than their peers who didn't use an available clinic.

Another study found that students with asthma who attended a school with a health center were in class more than students with asthma who attended a school without a health center. 

"We're hoping that it cuts down on (students) being gone all day," Christman said. 

St. Vincent is still assessing exactly what services will be offered, but Pellandini expected basic primary care services and perhaps limited lab services, like the ability to analyze a strep throat test. More complicated problems would be referred to other medical facilities. 

The vehicle was previously the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, which provided free, mobile dental services to low-income and uninsured children. St. Vincent pulled out of a partnership with the Ronald McDonald House in 2016. The two sides are still negotiating on the vehicle, but Pellandini didn't expect it to be a hurdle to the Lockwood clinic.

He said St. Vincent's experience running the dental unit would help in operating the Lockwood clinic. 

“We know how to greet the patient and how to manage the flow of patients in and out of a unit like this from that experience,” he said.

The clinic will be located away from the school's main traffic flow with ample parking space, Christman said. A $75,000 grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation will help renovate the clinic vehicle.

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School-based clinics

Billings Public Schools recently added a second school-based clinic at Medicine Crow Middle School, partnering with RiverStone Health. Billings partnered with RiverStone and Billings Clinic for its first clinic at Orchard Elementary in 2015. 

School-based health clinics are a common model in several other states, but have been slow to catch on in Montana. 

Missoula established a health center in 2012, and the first of four school-based health centers opened on the Fort Peck Reservation in 2007. Libby schools also have a partnership offering health services in school. The 2013-2014 census from the School-based Health Alliance shows an additional health center in northeast Montana. 

States like West Virginia, New York and Maine all have expansive school-based health center networks, and 15 states have competitive grant programs to fund clinics. About half of health centers are in urban areas, but more than a quarter are in rural areas — and a higher percentage of rural students use health centers. 

St. Vincent isn't currently looking at more school-based health centers, Pellandini said. 

Lockwood hopes to add more on-site mental health care options for students in the future, Christman said. 

"We kind of view the school as the center of the community," he said. "We just see this as another extension of what we do."

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