Conservatives target program serving 120,000 women monthly

AUSTIN — A state health program that helps low-income women get birth control, Pap smears and cancer screenings could cease to exist as some lawmakers try to shore up their anti-abortion credentials.

About 120,000 women are covered monthly by the Women’s Medicaid Health Program, which must be renewed this year to continue. The state provides about $3 million annually to keep the program afloat and gets about $28 million in matching money from the federal government.

The Health and Human Services Commission estimates that, if renewed, the program would save the state about $84 million over the next two years by reducing unwanted pregnancies through contraceptives.

But conservative Republican state lawmakers, who have launched an

effort to cripple funding for abortion providers and “affiliate” organizations that work with them, are pushing a bill that could eliminate the program altogether.

A measure by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, would continue the health program but includes a provision that stipulates that it would cease to exist if organizations such as Planned Parenthood challenge the state in court and win access to funding.

“I think the election shows that a great majority of voters put people in office that do not want money to go to abortion providers or their affiliates,” Deuell said.

Deuell’s bill passed out of the Health and Human Services committee on a 5-1 vote and is headed to the full Senate.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, cast the only vote against the bill.

Rodríguez said he opposes the bill because it cuts money for Planned Parenthood, which “has a track record and a history of providing services without complaints under the Women’s Health Program.”

By law, state and federal money for the program cannot be used for abortions.

Planned Parenthood provides abortions but has clinics that do not. Those clinics get funding through the program to offer women’s health services such as birth control and cancer screenings.

Rodríguez said his biggest concern with the bill is that if the state loses a lawsuit, the program could be eliminated entirely.

“We should have some kind of fallback position in the event that there is a successful challenge so that this program continues,” he said.

In 2005 the Legislature passed a bill establishing the Women’s Medicaid Health Program with an amendment that barred abortion providers or their affiliates from receiving funding.

Through the program, low-income women can visit a variety of health-care providers and get free health screenings, birth control and gynecological exams.

When the program was being implemented in 2007, lawyers from the Health and Human Services Commission said the exclusion of clinics that are connected in some way to abortion providers would not withstand a legal challenge. They advised the commission’s director to allow organizations such as Planned Parenthood to participate.

Since then, the attorney general has issued an opinion allowing the state to enforce the amendment. The state’s Health and Human Services Commission is now implementing measures that would bar organizations such as Planned Parenthood from receiving the money, officials said.

Planned Parenthood officials said that each year through the program their agency provides birth control and services such as cancer screenings to more than 40,000 women.

Peter Durkin, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said the organization is “prepared to move forward with a lawsuit if that’s what it takes to continue to provide cervical cancer screenings and other health care to the women who depend on our health centers.”

The bill will have to get 21 votes to be heard on the Senate floor. That would require that at least two Democrats support the measure.

Republican lawmakers, as part of their anti-abortion platform, removed funding for women’s health and family planning services in the Texas House budget and have sought to advance similar measures in the Senate.


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