Updated May 3 1:26 p.m. This morning the Senate Health and Human Services committee voted 6-1, with two absent members, to send SB 1854 to the Senate floor. Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, voted against the measure.
Imagine this decision facing women’s health advocates: Either support a bill that renews a crucial family planning program but likely cuts services, or risk losing the program entirely.
That’s the no-win scenario a bill by Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville)—scheduled for a committee vote on Tuesday—puts them in. Senate Bill 1854 renews the Women’s Health Program, a Medicaid-funded program set to expire this year that provides birth control and basic health screenings to 90,000 low-income Texas women.
But there’s a catch. The bill prohibits Planned Parenthood from delivering services under the Women’s Health Program. The Texas Attorney General’s office issued an opinion earlier this year stating that Texas can constitutionally eliminate abortion providers and their affiliates from the program. Women’s health advocates believe singling out Planned Parenthood may be unconstitutional. But the bill provides a powerful deterrent to a lawsuit.
The bill contains a provision that says if Planned Parenthood were to sue in court and win, the program would dissolve all together. If one part of the bill is declared unconstitutional, the whole legislation would be invalidated. And since it reauthorizes the program, if the entire bill is struck down in court, the Women’s Health Program would vanish.
So this is the choice for family planning advocates: A severely reduced Women’s Health Program or none at all.
“This bill paints a direct target—not on Planned Parenthood—but on the low-income Texas women who rely on Planned Parenthood for their health care,” Patricio Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Hidalgo County, said in a press release.
“Texas’ political leadership is playing politics with women’s health care,” Ken Lambrecht, CEO of Planned Parenthood of North Texas, said in a statement. “The results are clear and disastrous: less health care for women; less birth control resulting in more unintended pregnancies; and greater costs for Texans by not participating in a program that saves taxpayer funds.”
Conservative lawmakers and pro-life groups have expressed concerns that Women’s Health Program funds are aiding what they call the abortion industry. Current law requires that Planned Parenthood’s family planning centers be legally and financially separate from its abortion facilities. In other words, no Women’s Health Program money can be used for abortions or abortion-related activities. Still, pro-life groups say they want women receiving family planning services at community health centers, which can provide more comprehensive health care.
But family-planning advocates worry that community health centers couldn’t take on the extra burden if Planned Parenthood is barred from the Women’s Health Program.
Deuell has previously expressed concerns that eliminating so many providers from the program would cut women’s access to services. But he’s gotten past those concerns and sided with pro-life groups.
“I really think that there will be adequate access,” Deuell said. “The pro-life groups have committed to me, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, that they are going to work even harder to identify more potential women’s health providers.”
Meanwhile, women’s health advocates seem to be caught in the middle by being forced to support the lesser of two evils. In fact, most would prefer to see the program expanded rather than shrunk, arguing that the program is severely under-utilized. But they’ll take a crippled program over a nonexistent one.
“We support SB 1854 because it renews the Women’s Health Program,” Dr. Janet Realini with the Healthy Futures of Texas Alliance wrote in an email, adding that it’s not an ideal situation. “Of course, we are concerned that the provisions of SB 1854 would result in fewer providers being available for the program. Right now there are fewer providers than are needed, and reducing available providers is likely to reduce the number of women that the program is able to serve.”
While Deuell calls this contentious severability provision a “safeguard” against the program disappearing completely, one family planning provider in a subcommittee last week called it a “poison pill.”
“I know that the [Senate has] been very concerned about making sure the money doesn’t go to the providers that it feels should not receive the money,” said Amanda Stukenberg, director of Family Planning of the Coastal Bend near Corpus Christi. “If someone could get [the program] funded without this potential of it being destroyed, we would prefer that. If it’s that or nothing we’ll take what we can get.”