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Texas Women's Health Fund in Jeopardy

Texas is in a stand-off with the federal government over a program that provides health services for low-income Texas women.
Tim Baker
Texas is in a stand-off with the federal government over a program that provides health services for low-income Texas women.

Texas is in a stand-off with the federal government over a program that provides contraception and reproductive check-ups for low-income Texas women. A new Texas rule would exclude Planned Parenthood clinics from participating.

In Texas, poor women can’t usually get Medicaid unless they’re already pregnant. So five years ago, Texas partnered with the federal government to create the Women’s Health Program.

Stephanie Goodman is with the state department of Health and Human Services. She says every year the program helps 130,000 Texas women get contraception, and breast and cervical cancer screenings.

Goodman: Because a woman who is pregnant can qualify for Medicaid services at a certain income level, but the woman at the same income level previously couldn’t get family planning services. So we wanted to expand that to those women.

Jonee Longoria of Houston used the program when she went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in her thirties.

Longoria: The women’s health program was, I think, a godsend for me.

Longoria already had one daughter and she knew that it wasn’t the right time to have another child, but paying for the pill was hard.

Longoria: I have one child living in poverty, I don’t want another one living in poverty, so I was able to turn those tables and turn our lives around and that felt great. But I know a lot of that was through WHP and not having another unintended, unplanned pregnancy to worry about.

But now the program’s fate is unknown.

On March 14, Texas officials will start enforcing a new rule. It will exclude participating clinics from the Women’s Health Program if they have a relationship with an affiliate organization that provides abortions. Hospitals are exempted from the this rule.

In Texas, the Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions are legally separated from the Planned Parenthood clinics that provide other services like contraception. But they do have an affiliate relationship.

Peter Durkin is president of the organization’s Gulf Coast chapter. He says the rule is aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood, even though it’s not mentioned by name in the law.

Durkin: It’s always aimed at Planned Parenthood. It’s politically motivated and what it’s going to do is hurt women.

Federal officials have warned that if Texas moves ahead on this, the state could lose access to the program entirely.

Durkin: The federal government says, ‘No, you can’t exclude somebody just because you don’t like them. If you’re a willing provider in the Medicaid program you have to be allowed to participate.

Federal officials declined to comment but are continuing to talk with Texas about the stand-off. Longoria says she doesn’t understand how abortion politics could jeopardize a program that doesn’t fund abortions.

Longoria: Regardless of how anybody sits on the abortion side — regardless of they agree or don’t agree with it – if you want to stop having so many abortions, then provide better access for women to have health care and access to birth control.

The program costs about $40 million a year – with the federal government paying for 90 percent of that. But state officials say that because Texas does chip in 10 percent, state rules must be enforced. Lucy Nashed is a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry.

Nashed: I think that you know here in Texas we respect life and we protect life. And any abortion provider or abortion affiliate would be affected by this and that’s the will of the Texas legislature and that’s why we’ve got it in state law.

If the Women’s Health Program does end, it will be another blow to reproductive health clinics in Texas. Last summer, legislators decided to redirect $73 million that had funded family planning. They gave the money to other social service agencies.

Everyone is now waiting to see what happens in the next two weeks. Family planning advocates say the cuts will result in either more abortions or more unintended pregnancies that eventually get paid for by Texas taxpayers.

-- Carrie Feibel, KUHF Public Radio