MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Researchers and community leaders in the Morgantown area are hoping the work they’re doing now will eventually improve the health of West Virginia’s children, 25 percent of whom live in poverty.

According to advocacy groups like Health Poverty Action, “Very poor and vulnerable people may have to make harsh choices – knowingly putting their health at risk because they cannot see their children go hungry, for example.

One of the potential ways to address child health outcomes, according to researchers, is to bring healthcare to where the children are — a simple sounding concept.

“We think that school-based health centers are a very good vehicle to improve child health and child outcomes, because that’s the place children are almost every day,” Dr. Simon Haeder, a WVU professor, told WAJR.

“Children in rural communities in particular,” added Dr. Sara Anderson. “You could drive hours potentially to access health services. If children can access them within their schools, what a great way to potentially mitigate those adverse health outcomes we were talking about.”

Drs. Simon Haeder and Sara Anderson

Anderson, in addition to her role as Monongalia County Board of Education member, is an assistant professor of Learning Sciences in Human Development in the Cause of Education and Human Services at WVU.

Along with Dr. Simon Haeder and West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (WVAHC) Child Health Director Kelli Caseman, Anderson is researching how best to bring primary care and other forms of medical coverage to schools in West Virginia.

“(School-based health centers) are not run by the school, by the way,” Anderson said. “They are run by outside agencies and they create a relationship with the school.”

Like Anderson, Caseman sees the challenges posed by West Virginia’s rural geography. That results, she said, in health outcomes that are disproportionate to the number of children who are actually insured.

“One of the things that we do well as a state is insure children,” Caseman said. “So, 98 percent of West Virginia’s children are insured, but utilization of healthcare is another story.”

School-based health centers, the focus of the research, can offer more than just primary care; mental health and behavioral health care, dental and oral health care, health education and promotion, substance abuse counseling, nutrition education and case management can also be practiced, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.

“We have an increased need for mental health services that we currently do not have in this state, which is something that I think school-based health centers will get better at addressing,” Caseman said.

The program these three are participating in is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Program (IRL). Dr. Simon Haeder, an assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics in the Department of Political Science at WVU, said crafting public policy based on the research will be one of the final and most important practical ways to help improve child health outcomes.

“We understand we have very, very bad health outcomes, and we have very, very limited resources,” he said.

He continued: “We don’t want to flush money down the toilet just because a proposal sounds nice and makes people happy. We’re interested in looking at how can we use the resources we have that are very limited and get the most out of them.”

The research isn’t just on what school-based health centers do in theory. Those answers already exist. Rather, Dr. Haeder said it’s important to use the research to discover the best practices and begin maximizing the effect of those practices.

“We will be issuing, repeatedly, several reports and several academic papers, but the reports are what we really think are going to make a difference for policy makers where we show them what the effects of these different approaches to school-based health centers are,” he said. “Then give policy makers and advocates the tools to move in that direction and create these school based health centers that actually improve children’s outcomes.”

The three-year program provides participants with annual support of up to $25,000 and a one-time research grant of up to $125,000 per team.