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Teens hit by state health services cuts

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Free condoms > Councilor proposes $500,000 sex health program to pay for free condoms

By Tris DeRoma

Two years after the state cut its health clinic services, Los Alamos County officials, parent and students say the county is beginning to feel the impact at Los Alamos High School.

School officials told Los Alamos County Council Tuesday that 44 percent of students did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

The numbers came from a study that was part of Los Alamos High School’s 2017 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, where 349 students participated.

The survey also showed only 35 percent of students used effective birth control.

The information surfaced during a broader discussion about the state of ready access to mental and physical health services for youth in the community.

“Doubling of the unprotected sex rate. Would that have something to do with not having a public health office across the street?” Councilor Antonio Maggiore asked the Healthy Schools Program Director Kristine Coblentz.

Coblentz said it was a possibility.

“That absolutely could be a contributor, because we know that students were accessing condoms at that location,” Coblentz said.

The New Mexico Department of Health, up until September 2016, staffed a Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. branch in Los Alamos, covering services such as family planning and vaccinations.

Now the Public Health Office has been limited to being open on only the first and third Tuesdays of each month, from 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. Most of the services that teens could access have moved to the office’s Española branch.

Council also learned that there really aren’t any other places students can access free condoms, except through a few qualified staff members at the Los Alamos Teen Center.

“We’ve been in conversation with other community locations that are close to the high school where that might be available at a neutral location, but we haven’t been able to have an answer on that yet,” Coblentz said.

Maggiore asked why there weren’t condoms available through the high school.

Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and school board member Andrea Cunningham said that the school board that was in place several years ago rejected the free condom access idea.

“The attitude at that time was that the school was for education and that public health was something that was different… again, this was many years ago,” Cunningham said.

When interviewed about the subject Thursday, parents offered reasons for and against the idea.

“It’s not a good idea,” parent Bridget Wilson said. “A lot of kids have jobs… If they think they are responsible enough to have sex, and the potential pregnancy that comes along with that, then they are responsible enough to go to the local grocery store and buy them. They have to think about their choices.”

Parent Daniel Padilla thought it would be a good idea.

“I have both boys and girls. If they handed out condoms, and stuff that’s not going to hurt the kids, but only help protect them, I would not have an issue with that,” Padilla said. “I would never encourage my kids to go out had have sex, but if they are doing it, I hope they have the ability to make the right decisions.”

A high school student interviewed for the story said she was not sexually active but she thought having access to free condoms was a good idea.

“I don’t know if there are a lot of students here who are sexually active, but it’s probably a good idea,” Jenae Martinez said.

Los Alamos Teen Center Director Sylvan Argo told the council that the Teen Center offers free condoms, but only through organized programming.

“The education is really important, so with those resources we also make sure that teens also have access to information, education and ongoing support,” Argo said. “We want to make sure we’re connecting it to a broader network of resources.”

Argo also added that it is not widely known in the teen community that teens can access condoms through the teen center.

At the end of the discussion, Maggiore proposed using $500,000 in funding they give the schools every two years go toward creating sexual health programs that also give students free access to sex protection. He also said he’d like to see something written into the Teen Center contract that allows for that.

“I’m just going to go on the record and say that next time the Teen Center contract comes up…I want to see condom distribution in that contract.”

Reiss expressed his frustration with the state as the county worked to take up the slack.

He noted how the New Mexico Department of Health cuts to the branch office have only added to the county’s problems. He said that for all intents and purposes, the office might as well be closed.

“I call it a closing, because they are never really there anyway,” Reiss said. “It has really aggravated some of the processes. Now we’re seeing an uptick in unprotected sex.”

He also said that even if the county wanted to take over some of the state’s role, the state’s bureaucracy gets in the way.

“Too many rules, not enough action,” Reiss said.

Cunningham, who is also a case coordinator with the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, said Los Alamos is a victim of its own affluence.

“In most other communities in the state, the state itself, the Department of Health, the CYFD (Children Youth and Families Department), various departments throughout that are state funded provide a lot of the services that Los Alamos County is just not eligible for,” Cunningham said.

She also added that the county now has to come up with its own answer, “because we don’t have a state or federal response.”