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Coalition Pushes Legislature to Restore Cuts to Women’s Health Services

Austin American-StatesmanFebruary 13, 2013Articles

A coalition of 32 medical groups and nonprofits is asking state lawmakers to restore cuts to women’s health care services that, while aimed at Planned Parenthood, have hit other providers of care to poor women, especially in rural areas.

“The damage has been extensive,” said Dr. Janet Realini, steering committee chairwoman of the newly formed Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, at a state Capitol news conference Wednesday. Reductions in funding and services “happened in every public health region” in the state, she said.

The Legislature cut by 66 percent funding to the Department of State Health Services’ Family Planning program, from $111 million to $38 million for the 2012-13 biennium. That has caused at least 53 clinics to close and is affecting 147,000 of the 211,000 low-income women who had been served by the program, Realini said.

In addition, lawmakers rejected about $33 million a year in federal dollars for the Women’s Health Program, which provides similar services, and replaced it in January with a Texas-based program to keep money from going to Planned Parenthood, which has clinics that perform abortions.

That change has resulted in litigation and confusion among patients about where to get services, fueled by an incorrect list of alternative providers the state initially put out.

Neither the Family Planning nor the Women’s Health programs the Legislature targeted in 2011 provided funding to pay for abortions. Several clinics offering women’s health services in Travis County received aid from donors and taxpayers, but a rural program that serves women in surrounding counties had to cut services in half, an official said.

“This is not about abortion,” Realini said. “It’s about prevention.”

Because the programs are designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as well as catch cancer and other medical problems early when they are cheaper to manage, they save Medicaid millions of dollars, according to the coalition, which includes the Texas Medical Association, Texas Academy of Family Physicians, Texas Nurses Association and others.

Realini and others said they’re concerned that women will find it even harder to get the preventive services they need.

Planned Parenthood has closed some clinics in Texas and is charging more for some services at others, said Sarah Wheat, vice president for community affairs at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

“I see it as a sort of a one-two punch to the safety net,” Realini said.

At the news conference, State Reps. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, and Sarah Davis, a Houston-area Republican, said they intend to work with their colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to restore funding for women’s health.

State officials have said the family planning program cuts could result in nearly 24,000 unplanned pregnancies over the next two years. Preventive services cost about $205 a year per patient, compared with $11,000 for a Medicaid-funded birth, Howard, a nurse, said.

Of the 53 clinics known to have closed, two-thirds were not connected to Planned Parenthood, Howard said.

The Legislature’s de-funding of Planned Parenthood reflected conservative efforts around the nation to limit abortions, which Gov. Rick Perry said in a speech last month that he wants to make “a thing of the past” in Texas.

Some Republicans who voted for the cuts didn’t realize they would hurt other kinds of clinics, Davis said. “It’s really no time to play politics with women’s health,” said Davis, a breast cancer survivor.

In Travis County, three clinics received aid from donors and the Central Health hospital district, and some raised costs.

A rural network surrounding Travis County that boasted nine clinics in 2005 is now down to two — one in San Marcos and one in Lockhart, which is struggling to stay afloat, said Carole Belver, director of health services for Community Action Inc. of Central Texas, a nonprofit social services provider.

Its two remaining clinics serve about 1,400 women, less than half as many as in 2011, Belver said.

In Williamson County, the Lone Star Circle of Care, which provides health care services to the indigent, received a 62 percent cut in family planning funds and is now at $520,000 for the fiscal year, spokeswoman Rebekah Haynes said.

Some patients who don’t have health coverage might have to pay for services, but “we’re not going to turn patients away who need family planning services,” she said.

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