Teen health clinics targeted for closure

Five years after King County opened teen health clinics in Burien and Renton, budget problems may force their closure.

County Executive Ron Sims' proposed 2004 budget would eliminate the clinics' funding entirely. But some County Council members are pushing to save the clinics, which they credit with reducing a high rate of teen pregnancies.

Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, said she will fight to maintain their funding, which this year is $281,524.

"We've been making some inroads into our teen-pregnancy problem in North Highline," she said. "Things have been improving. It makes no sense to shut the clinic down."

Patterson said there is such strong support that she thinks "it really won't be much of a fight" to restore funding.

Officials in Sims' budget office and in Public Health — Seattle & King County said some health programs must be trimmed to avoid cuts in "critical" services such as infectious disease control and HIV/AIDS prevention. Teen clinics are categorized by Public Health as an "enhanced," not critical, service.

The need for cuts was caused in part by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal that the city budget reduce its support for Public Health, administration staffers said. But Metropolitan King County Councilman Dow Constantine, D-Seattle, said the city shouldn't be blamed. "Seattle taxpayers have been good over the years not only for local needs but for regional needs," he said.

If the teen health clinics are closed, teens would still have access to other public clinics operated by Public Health, department spokesman James Apa said.

The Renton and Burien health centers, both operated by Highline Community Hospital, are the county's only two "school-linked" teen clinics outside Seattle. Public Health and health-provider partners operate 13 clinics in or near Seattle high schools and middle schools with funding from the city's Families and Education Levy.

School-linked clinics work closely with school nurses but see students off campus. Students can receive medical services, mental-health counseling, as well as advice on contraceptives.

The Renton clinic was operated by Group Health until this year, when the county halved its support of the two clinics and Highline Hospital took over the Renton site with reduced hours.

Unless county funding is restored, the hospital probably will have to shut both sites, said Debbie Wilkinson, director of community support for Highline Hospital.

So far this year, teens have made 4,117 visits for health care and additional visits for mental-health reasons, she said. "It's pretty sad, actually. It's been an absolutely stellarly successful program."

Wilkinson said the clinics are part of a larger effort that has helped reduce teen pregnancy rates around the county. "It's not by chance that it's going down," she said.

A report released by Public Health last summer indicated that the number of King County teens who got pregnant, gave birth or had abortions had plummeted to historic lows. For example, over the past decade, researchers found that the birth rate fell by 52 percent among 15- to 17-year-old girls in King County.

Meanwhile, the most controversial part of Sims' proposed budget is the idea of making the county's solid-waste utility pay $7 million rent each year to the county's general fund for use of the Cedar Hills Landfill. The rent would fund human services such as food banks and support for victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence.

At a hearing on the budget Tuesday night in Kirkland, solid-waste workers objected to the idea of raising rent money by shutting the landfill on Sundays and reducing hours of operation at transfer stations.

Ben Hall, who schedules solid-waste drivers, said overtime costs are rising as driver positions have gone unfilled.

"We cannot perform miracles," he said. "If our staff is reduced as much as is proposed, it will take a miracle to maintain our level of service to the public."

Homeless advocates asked the county to authorize a tent city in county parks.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com