PHOENIX (AP) — Banner Health first opened clinics for uninsured children at metro Phoenix schools in the mid-1990s. But more than a decade later, demand for affordable health care greatly exceeds supply.
The New York City-based Commonwealth Fund named Arizona the third-worst state in the country for children's health in 2011.
Banner Health's early efforts to meet needs with the clinics missed the mark, said Megan Christopherson, child health and wellness senior manager at Banner Health.
"We used to be in central Phoenix because there are a lot of high-needs, low-income kids there, but there's also a lot of community health centers and other free clinics there," she said.
While some areas are saturated with free health-care providers, others are lacking.
With the help of a federal grant, Banner Health on Monday launched what they hope will be the first step toward a long-range solution — the Banner Children's Healthmobile.
Banner Health officials hope the mobile clinic will treat more than 5,000 uninsured children this year. Students can hop on the colorful 40-foot recreational vehicle to receive everything from sports physicals to asthma treatments.
Banner Health officials began to study the Valley areas with the highest health needs and the lowest resources in 2010. Christopherson determined the Valley's outer suburbs were among the most underserved.
"We've got kids coming from Florence to our Mesa clinic," Christopherson said. "It's the same at our Glendale clinic; we've got families coming from Tolleson and Avondale."
The Healthmobile opened its doors 10 a.m. Monday after parking outside Buckeye Elementary.
About 75 percent of the students in the Buckeye Elementary School District are from low-income families, Superintendent Al Steen said.
"We're hoping it adds a lot to the community," he said. "Uninsured children are a problem nationwide. This is an opportunity for children while they are still in school to receive some type of health services at no charge for them."
The Healthmobile will stop in Buckeye Mondays from 10a.m. to 4 p.m. It will operate at Maricopa Elementary in Maricopa on Wednesdays and Banner Ironwood Medical Center, which is located just outside Queen Creek, on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"They correspond to those communities that were driving long distances to come to our already established school-day health centers, so that prompted us to think about how we could come see those additional communities," Christopherson said.
The mobile clinic and school-based centers cost about $400,000 to run annually, Christopherson said. While a federal grant paid for the equipment, operational costs for the Healthmobile and the centers are covered with private donations.
Had Banner Health not received a federal grant as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Christopherson said the Healthmobile probably would have never hit the road.
"If we could have done this years ago, I think we would have," she said. "We saw the needs out in the community and a lot of the school districts started asking, 'When are you going to come to us?' But we didn't have the resources to do it."
Banner Health said they may consider opening school-based health centers in the three communities the Healthmobile serves.
"It's important to establish a needed relationship with the community before we put something permanent there," Christopherson said.
The Commonwealth study said 15 percent of Arizona children 18 and younger were uninsured, while the national rate was 10 percent.
Edward Schor, senior vice president of programs and partnerships for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, led the Commonwealth Fund study and said Arizona must find immediate solutions to its child health-care problems.
"The future of our country depends on us having healthy and well-educated children and if we don't have that, we're not going to be able to continue to be a competitor in the world market," he said.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com