New Texas women’s health program has family planning focus

Republican State Sen. Jane Nelson at women's health unveiling (KXAN photo)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas unveiled Monday a revamped women’s health program for low-income residents that includes a boost in family planning services that the conservative state will no longer let Planned Parenthood and other organizations affiliated with abortion providers offer.

More than 5,000 health care providers are part of the new program, Healthy Texas Women, said Charles Smith, head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. That’s a 30 percent increase from 2014, and about triple the number of providers in the state women’s health program as recently as 2011.

Those totals may alleviate abortion rights advocates’ complaints that Texas state lawmakers created a care shortage when they booted Planned Parenthood and other health organizations from Texas’ women’s health program beginning five years ago.

So many providers have already joined because Healthy Texas Women is not entirely new. It instead combines the already state-funded Texas Women’s Health Program with two other state-run initiatives that focused on family planning.

Texas began paying for its own women’s health initiatives after the federal government said excluding approved providers was against the law and halted federal funding for women’s care statewide. The push to defund Planned Parenthood was part of a larger, years long anti-abortion effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

State lawmakers also approved some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on abortion — key portions of which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down last month.

Healthy Texas Women will offer contraception, pregnancy testing and counseling, immunizations, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Those under 18 will need a parent’s permission to qualify.

Planned Parenthood once provided such services to almost half of the 110,000 patients who qualified for state women’s health programs. Today, Texas says it provides care for 260,000 people — and officials said Tuesday that the overhaul could increase that number.

Republican State Sen. Jane Nelson joined Smith at a news conference at the Texas Capitol. She said the unveiling includes a media campaign beginning next month to raise awareness among women statewide.

Nelson said the state budget for women’s health care has grown to $285 million — or more than double the amount spent a decade ago — but that some women were “frightened and didn’t know where to go.”

“I think women were reading that there were no longer going to be services available to them and believed it,” Nelson said.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas spokeswoman Sarah Wheat dismissed word of the new, consolidated program as simple posturing.

“Texas’ top elected officials appear to be more committed to meeting political goals than to advancing public health,” Wheat said via email Monday.

A February study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that Texas saw a drop in women obtaining long-acting birth control after the state kicked Planned Parenthood out of the state women’s health program.

That study didn’t make an explicit connection between the exclusion of Planned Parenthood clinics and fewer women obtaining such forms of contraception. But researchers said there was likely a policy link.

Nelson said Monday’s announcement “is not in response” to the study.

Adriana Kohler, senior health policy associate at the Austin-based nonprofit Texans Care for Children, called Healthy Texas Women “an important step in the right direction” but noted that the state has also refused to expand Medicaid under the Obama administration’s signature health care law — costing it billions of dollars in additional federal subsidies.

“Women still face a lot of gaps in the Texas health care system,” Kohler said in an emailed statement.

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