Texas health officials are telling low-income women not to worry. The Women's Health Program, the Medicaid program serving 130,000 women, will still be there for them. Of course, how it will be paid for and whether enough clinics will be left providing services are still subjects up for debate.
The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature cut funding for the program—which offers poor women basic reproductive health services like birth control and cancer screenings—by two-thirds last year. The cuts came out of fear that the health-care providers were too linked with the so-called abortion industry. Just to be safe, conservative lawmakers barred Planned Parenthood from participating in the program. Of course, since the beginning of the program, no public dollars could go to abortions, and women could only participate if they were not pregnant.
The results were swift. The budget cuts resulted in clinic closings around the state, and the decision to exclude Planned Parenthood violated federal policy, meaning that the federal government, which paid for 90 percent of the $35 million program, would no longer pay for any of it. Protests have broken out around the state. Planned Parenthood has already filed a lawsuit.
But not to worry—Governor Rick Perry promised that the state would take over the Women's Health Program. Yesterday, state health officials unveiled their plan. Step one: Stay on the federal tab a few months longer. Step two: They're working on it.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will ask the feds to keep funding them through November 1. (Texas was supposed to get cut off at the end of April.) By then, presumably, the state will find some way to free up dollars. That's hardly a cakewalk. Texas has been in a fiscal crisis since 2011. For the last two-year budget, lawmakers had to deal with a $22 billion shortfall, resulting in unprecedented cuts to education and underfunding of Medicaid programs by almost $5 billion. The state has a structural deficit thanks to a dysfunctional tax structure. Yesterday, Perry announced his "Budget Compact," which asks lawmakers to pledge no new or increased taxes as well as offering voters a constitutional amendment that would limit spending increases to the population growth.
Given the situation, $35 million isn't going to be easy to find, unless the state comes up with a way to get more federal money. Which may be its best option. According to The Texas Tribune, officials "hinted the state could free up state dollars to fund the Women's Health Program by seeking federal block grants for other programs."
But even if they find the money, there's still the problem of clinics. Planned Parenthood clinics served almost 50 percent of the women participating in the WHP. With those providers out of the picture, the remaining clinics have to shoulder the burden—and they have to do so with a major funding cut. As the Austin Chronicle notes, non-Planned Parenthood clinic Community Action Inc. has had to close 11 of its 13 clinics in Central Texas. The two remaining ones are in danger as well. In their plan for taking over the program, state officials say they will try to increase the number of providers.
The head of the state's biggest health agency, Tom Suehs, has promised that things will be fine, dismissing the "scare tactics and misinformation campaigns." The bigger challenge, he says, is "making sure women get accurate information about the program in the midst of organized attempts to confuse and frighten those who rely on it."
Maybe it's just me, but what's confusing is a health-care policy that makes it hard to access health care.
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