A new clinic inside Orchard Elementary that promises to make health care more convenient for its students and families is now enrolling patients, the first of its kind to open in Billings and only the third in the state.

“This really is the start of a very powerful model that potentially could expand over time,” said Dr. Megan Littlefield, medical director for RiverStone Health.

Through a partnership with School District 2, RiverStone will operate the clinic similar to its other branches, providing primary care services out of a newly remodeled office across the hall from elementary school classrooms.

Formerly a speech room, it was converted into a medical space with funds from the South Billings Urban Renewal Association. Now the space features a private exam room, reception area and an office where Billings Clinic staff will provide mental health services.

Locating inside the school is a natural fit that doctors said can lead to more accessible, effective health care for children.

While school-based health care is common throughout the country, the model is still rare in Montana. Only two other clinics are partnered with schools, in Missoula and Libby.

Littlefield and Billings Clinic child psychiatrist Dr. Eric Arzubi credited enthusiasm from leaders of the three organizations, including School District 2, for getting the Orchard clinic off the ground. The process took about 18 months.

“If there had been any pushback from any of those partners, I don’t think this would have happened,” Arzubi said.

Students and their families may access the clinic like any other RiverStone clinic, for acute and chronic illnesses as well as preventative care.

Packets were recently sent to Orchard families, inviting them to enroll. Enrolled students can have appointments during or after school, with parental consent before each visit. Because the services are offered through RiverStone, Yellowstone County’s contracted provider of public health services, families who are uninsured or underinsured can pay according to a sliding fee scale based on income.

The convenient arrangement aims to make health care more accessible to South Side families, resulting in better care for students.

Arzubi said the school setting offers advantages for doctors coordinating youth mental health treatment that are difficult in a typical office.

“I can go to the classroom and observe. I can talk to their counselor right here,” he said. “It’s a much richer experience for me and the family, because they’ll get a richer assessment.”

In turn, doctors can work closely with school staff and existing support services to improve the student’s environment, often a contributing factor in behavioral issues.

Littlefield said the program may evolve to match the needs of Orchard families. A community advisory group that includes parents and South Side community leaders has been created to provide ongoing input.

“We have a great foundation of collaboration, and I think now we’re going to build on that foundation to develop our program here,” Littlefield said.

The clinic will be open from noon to 4 p.m. every day during the school year. Its summer hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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