U.S. Rep. Salinas backs legislation to increase, expand mental health care in public schools 

U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas is pushing legislation that would expand health services offered in public schools – with the goal of reaching children and youth with mental health and addiction challenges early in life.

Salinas, D-Oregon, has made behavioral health a priority during her first term as a congresswoman for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Polk and Yamhill counties and portions of Marion, Clackamas and Washington counties. Salinas is co-sponsoring bills that would put $300 million in federal funding in place for school-based health centers that serve students, often in low-income families, and provide mental health care services for students.

Medical providers, often at federally backed health centers that serve low-income people, set up the clinics in schools and work with students, who are often on Medicaid. The clinics provide a variety of services, from physicals and treatment for minor injuries to drug and alcohol counseling. They receive reimbursement through Medicaid and other insurance policies but often that’s not enough to break even. They need federal support to be sustainable, Salinas said.

”We need to be able to figure out how to make them more whole because kids need it,” Salinas said.

Salinas is a co-sponsor of a bill that would allocate $300 million nationwide so public schools could work with mental health providers to have on-site health services for students. The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, would save money in the long run, Salinas said. 

She also is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide grants to states to hire more school based mental health providers and counselors. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, would make $100 million available to states annually for each of the next four years. 

The health centers in schools help students stay healthy by offering preventive services and reduce stigma in the case of those who need mental health or addiction treatment, Salinas said. 

This year, efforts in the Oregon Legislature to better fund school health centers stumbled. State lawmakers failed to advance a bill that would have put $18 million toward the expansion of school health centers and their mental health and addiction services for students. 

Nationwide need

This support in Congress for expanding school based health centers is needed, said Doug Riggs, a lobbyist for the Oregon School-Based Health Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the health centers.

“There are so few school districts that have school based health centers,” Riggs said. “There’s a tremendous need, especially given the increased acuity we’re seeing among youth in the post-pandemic era with dramatic increases in mental health challenges, behavioral health issues and substance abuse issues. All children in all schools need adequate resources to respond.”

In Oregon, school health centers are in 87 schools statewide, about 7% of the approximately 1,200 schools in Oregon, state data show. In the 2021-2022 school year, about 40,000 students visited the clinics.

For Salinas, the bills mark her latest push for measures on behavioral health care. She also has introduced proposals that would expand access to peer support workers and put more federal funding toward gambling addiction treatment.  

In February, Salinas became a co-chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, a bipartisan group with more than 100 representatives that supports policies that will aid access to care. 

Salinas said she’s optimistic about the public recognition these days of the need to improve the mental health care system. 

“I just feel like there’s so much more awareness around this,” Salinas said. “And I feel like there’s a groundswell across the United States, not just in Oregon, for these kinds of services that we’re getting closer and closer to making something like this feasible.”

Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.