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Schools at risk of losing athletic trainers

Jan. 15—There was a collective "Oh, wow," from the Western School Board when Superintendent Mark DuBois broke the news last month.

Western School Corporation is set to lose its athletic trainers, a therapist and two mental health skills clinicians when its contract with Community Howard Regional Health expires at the end of June.

This was the news that solicited an audible response from the school board.

Western wasn't the only school that received the notice.

Days later, Howard County school corporations Eastern Howard and Taylor were told the same thing.

Specifically, the current iteration of their contracts with Community Health would not be renewed upon expiration.

This includes for athletic trainers and certain mental health positions the hospital network has provided to the schools, free of charge, for years.

"It's sad," DuBois said. "It's a bad thing for Howard County."

Technically, the schools could re-up with Community Health, but they'd be on the hook to pay the salaries of those positions. It's an expense schools are not willing to take on.

At Western, that would be an additional $474,000 to pay for one and a half trainers, a licensed therapist and two skills clinicians.

"It's a punch in the gut," DuBois said. "We love the people we work with Community."

Eastern Howard Superintendent Keith Richie said Community Health offered him a contract for $108,000 to keep their athletic trainer. That wasn't well received by the school board during a meeting last month.

"I just hate being held hostage to pay a salary of people who don't work for us," said Jordan Buckley, school board president, said. "That's not my cup of tea."

The loss of athletic trainers wasn't a surprise to these schools. Superintendents knew it was coming, as Kokomo School Corporation was notified earlier in 2023.

What was a surprise, however, was the loss of the mental health positions.

Community Health said in statement current contracts need to be restructured so schools pay for the service due to changes impacting the health care network. It appears new state legislation passed in 2023 is part of the issue.

The hospital network did not specify the exact legislation, however school officials interviewed for this story said Community Health told them it's about how networks bill patients.

"This legislation coupled with other changes in health care, including shrinking reimbursements and rising costs, resulted in organizational changes impacting jobs, as well as a continued analysis of all aspects of our operations to ensure we are utilizing resources in a way that allows us to best meet our mission in the communities we serve," Kris Kirschner, corporate communications director for Community Health said, in a statement.

Looking for solutions

The trio of Howard County schools searching for a long-term fix are far from the only schools that have been in this situation.

Maconaquah School Corporation was one of the first area schools to lose its athletic trainer when Community Health ended its partnership in 2022.

The Miami County school district still doesn't have an athletic trainer. Athletic Director Tim Maiben often asks the opposing school if they can bring theirs. Maconaquah will cut them a check if so.

He estimates about half of basketball games have an athletic trainer. The Indiana High School Athletic Association does not require schools to have athletic trainers.

"As an AD, we can't afford to have a trainer for $35-$40 (an hour) for every game," Maiben said. "It's not economical."

Maiben said Twin Lakes, Winamac and Knox schools are all without trainers as well.

Maconaquah coaches have learned to tape athletes and school nurses give advice when possible, however there's no medical diagnoses.

Maconaquah does provide a trainer for certain events, such as conference wrestling tournaments and sectionals.

Other Central Indiana schools have been more fortunate.

Districts including Madison-Grant, Mississinewa, Oak Hill and Eastbrook in Grant County had either lost athletic training services or were going without it until Optimum Performance Sports, a Fort Wayne sports, wellness and fitness company, came to town.

OPS, part of Lutheran Health Network, struck partnerships with these schools, along with others, offering athletic trainers free of charge.

"The idea behind it is if we can provide an athletic trainer, we can do something good for the community," said Zac Thiele, executive director of sports medicine for OPS.

There's also a business incentive. Having an athletic trainer through a hospital means if an athlete gets hurt during a game or practice, they will be referred to the health network supplying the trainer.

It could make, depending on the injury, the athlete a long-term patient. While Thiele doesn't hope athletes get hurt, OPS likely gains a client if the worst occurs.

It's for that same reason school administrators in Howard County are frustrated. For DuBois, a partnership with Community Health is a return on investment in the community.

"What I've told them in pulling those services — and because of the decisions that are made outside of our ability — has compromised student safety," he said.

Thiele said rural schools are at risk of losing athletic trainer services if it does not net the partnering health network enough referrals.

Maiben thinks a lack of referrals, along with Maconaquah's rural location, both played a part in being dropped.

"I think our location, we're farthest away," he said. "I feel like that had something do with it."

When Franciscan Health wanted to increase the price of its contract with Clinton Prairie School Corporation from $1,000 month to $7,500, the school district turned elsewhere.

Clinton Prairie Superintendent Scott Miller said via email he was told contracts need to cover expenses and be revenue neutral, hence the increase.

Clinton Prairie, along with the rest of the school districts in Clinton County, now partner with Witham Health Services.

Franciscan Health declined to comment for this story.

There was a chance Eastern could be picked up by OPS, however Thiele said it's unlikely at this point. The company opened an office in Gas City near Interstate 69, but it is already stretched thin.

A contract with OPS was favorable for Eastern as they would have been able to keep their longtime trainer, who would have joined OPS' payroll.

"I feel terrible for the schools," Thiele said. "I wish we could help more. It's not ideal. I wish we could get athletic trainers out to every area."

Like many other school positions, there does not seem to be enough athletic trainers.

There's not one lone reason. Thiele said it's combination of a few.

That includes athletic training programs at the college level. Athletic training used to be just a four-year program. Now it requires a master's degree, leading to not as many students completing the program.

Thiele sees it when OPS posts a job opening.

"I've personally noticed not as many applicants," he said.

An athletic training license is broad and lends itself to many options, including clinic work, surgeries and even the industrial setting. Those who work in a clinic have regular hours, compared to the second-shift schedule that comes with working with high school sports teams.

School administrators are hopeful to keep both their athletic trainers and mental health positions.

DuBois said the mental health positions have been helpful for Western students. These people typically only work with Medicaid students, however Western pays Community Health an additional fee to make the services available to all students.

Those positions could be easier to keep, as the salaries are lower.

Western and Eastern are on the clock. Taylor has a little more time, as their contract with Community Health is good for another two years.

It is unclear what Kokomo schools has done since losing its partnership with Community Health. School officials did not provide a response before publication.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.