Georgia schools have been short-changing themselves as much as $50 million annually in federal funding for school nurses.
The state Department of Education realized this recently and is working with another state agency to tap the money, which would come from Medicaid.
It’s not an expansion of the federal health care program; rather, it’s a claim for reimbursements the state has been eligible to receive.
Superintendent Richard Woods said that if all goes well school districts will be able to “basically double” the number of nurses on staff as soon as this fall. “This is a big game changer,” he said.
There are 1,629 nurses and 307 unlicensed health care and clinic workers in Georgia schools now. In schools with high poverty or in rural areas where hospitals have closed, they might be the only medical professional that some students see. They provide routine and preventive screenings and examinations, diagnosis of health problems and monitoring and treatment of chronic conditions.
The state education board voted Thursday to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Community Health, whose own board is expected to vote on the measure next week.
The state budget currently allocates about $35 million to schools to pay for nurses. Under new “flexibility” contracts with the state, though, schools don’t necessarily spend that money on nurses. But to qualify for the additional Medicaid funds they’ll have to hire nurses with that existing state allocation first.
The new money is basically a federal matching grant for the dollars the state currently gives schools for their nurses. Assuming the federal government approves Georgia’s request, the money will be distributed based on the Medicaid and PeachCare enrollment at each school.
Woods, into his third year in office, said his staff discovered after conversations with other state agencies that the federal money had been on the table. Asked why Georgia’s eligibility for the Medicaid dollars hadn’t been noticed before, he said, because “nobody asked.”
It's unclear whether the state can get all the money. As the education board was voting for the memorandum Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives was voting to replace Obamacare. Their new healthcare bill slashes Medicaid 25 percent over a decade, taking a chunk out of the roughly $30 million Georgia already gets from Medicaid to serve students with disabilities. The $50 million grant would likely shrink along with that funding if the U.S. Senate approves the change.
Ty Tagami is the state education reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Since joining the newspaper in 2002, he has written about everything from hurricanes to homelessness. He has deep experience covering local government and education, and can often be found under the Gold Dome when lawmakers meet or in a school somewhere in the state.