Two new health clinics treated their first patients on the campuses of north metro community colleges in recent weeks, improving access for a group of young people that research shows is in urgent need of such care.

North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park and Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids debuted health clinics this semester. The two colleges join a small but growing number of two-year schools in the state to offer clinic-style services.

Health officials say they’re keeping a close eye on the two new clinics and how they fare on campus.

“We see students choosing between going to the doctor and buying food,” said Lindsay Fort, director of student life at North Hennepin, which opened its clinic on Monday. “There’s a huge need for it.”

Proponents of the clinics say they also might help address the stubbornly high — and rising — number of sexually transmitted diseases, which reached an all-time peak statewide in 2015, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College has partnered with nearby Nucleus Clinic to offer full-service reproductive health care on its Coon Rapids campus one day a week. The reduced-cost clinic provides testing for sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, cancer screenings, annual exams, infection treatment and on-site birth-control options, as well as counseling about family planning.

Its range of care makes it one of the first clinics of its kind at a two-year school in Minnesota, said Becky Fink, executive director of Nucleus Clinic.

Amid national uncertainties over the future of reproductive health care, making these services convenient for students is crucial, she added.

“It’s so important that the school is doing this, especially when we don’t know what’s around the corner,” Fink said.

The clinic’s one-stop style of reproductive care is very rare among community colleges across the country, even though most schools provide some form of health service, said Katy Suellentrop, vice president of programs at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, D.C.

“Some schools are unsure if this is their role” and are hesitant to broach a topic they feel is “very personal and political,” Suellentrop said. But a growing movement exists among schools to address students’ nonacademic needs and look at how these needs affect retention, she said.

Need for family planning

The recently opened clinic at North Hennepin was a result of a student survey that indicated health services were a pressing need. The student senate in April 2015 approved a fee of $1 per credit hour to pay for the clinic, and construction began last summer.

Students can see a physician assistant or nurse practitioner free of charge, regardless of insurance coverage. The school contracts with Fairview Health Services for its medical staff, which treats students three days a week. The clinic provides walk-in care for illnesses and injuries, as well as lab testing such as pregnancy tests. Students are referred to a nearby Fairview Clinics site for sexually transmitted infection testing. No medicines are dispensed on site.

School officials said they looked to places like Minneapolis Community and Technical College as a model. The Minneapolis college opened its health clinic in 2009 and contracts with the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service to provide primary care as well as mental health services, said Jenny Swanson, clinic manager.

Schools like Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College also offer a variety of health services to students.

St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health ran a clinic about 20 years ago at Century College but closed it due to a lack of patients, said Chris Burns, a spokesman for the county health department. But the department is keeping a close eye on the latest efforts to house clinics at community colleges, Burns said.

Research points to an urgent need for health care among community college students, especially when it comes to family planning.

One 2014 study from the University of Minnesota shows that rates of unprotected sex, unplanned pregnancy and STIs were “significantly higher” among Minnesota students at two-year colleges than at four-year colleges. Only 2 percent of students at four-year schools reported unplanned pregnancies, for instance, while 5.5 percent at two-year schools did, the study shows.

The hope is to help schools tackle those rates by offering services that students can easily access between classes, said Sandra Kohler, dean of nursing at Anoka-Ramsey. Educators at other schools, she said, have been asking questions about the clinic, which so far has had very little pushback from the community.

“They’re watching very closely to see how this is going to go,” Kohler said.