Just before Christmas, the Department of State Health Services announced the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Houston would no longer receive funding for HIV prevention services, ending a nearly 30-year-old contract for testing and condom distribution.
With little notice and even less explanation, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s long-standing HIV Prevention Program contract with the state wasn’t renewed when it expired on December 31, 2015. Now, a group of lawmakers wants some answers.
On January 22, 14 Democratic state representatives from Houston, San Antonio and Austin sent a letter to DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt demanding to know the reason behind Planned Parenthood’s ouster.
In December, DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen told the Observer that the agency has “the discretion to extend the contract and elected not to do so in this case.”
State Representative Celia Israel, D-Austin, isn’t satisfied with that answer.
“I was very disappointed in the way that it was done,” said Israel, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter. She added that the timing of the announcement on December 21, 10 days before the contract was to end and so close to the holidays, is suspect as well. “It might’ve been legal, but it certainly wasn’t professional.”
With the approximately $600,000 it received annually from the state, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast provided HIV screenings in the Houston area, including in Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Services were specifically tailored for the Harris County jail, local bars and nightclubs, and college campuses. Planned Parenthood first received the grant in 1987, and, since then, has tested more than 145,000 people and helped identify nearly 1,200 positive HIV cases, according to organization officials. In 2015, Planned Parenthood distributed 300,000 condoms.
In addition to the reason behind the elimination of Planned Parenthood from the program, the state representatives who penned the letter want to know how DSHS will “ensure that there is no interruption in service to the population previously served by Planned Parenthood.”
Texas has been draining public funding for Planned Parenthood for years at the behest of anti-abortion lawmakers, first booting the provider from the state’s family planning program and Medicaid Women’s Health Program in 2011, and then the Breast and Cervical Cancer Services (BCCS) and abstinence education programs in 2015.
Lawmakers frequently say patients will find alternatives to the provider, but that isn’t always the case. When the state booted Planned Parenthood from the BCCS program last year, promising no service interruptions, the Waco area was still left without a provider.
The lawmakers also want to know if the state reached out to other providers in the area about whether they could take on additional clients. According to the state health department’s HIV Surveillance Report, 1,289 Harris County residents were diagnosed with HIV in 2014, the highest number of new cases that year across all 254 counties.
DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Observer via email that the state agency has contracted with Harris, Fort Bend and Galveston county health departments for HIV outreach, effective January 1 of this year.
Still, lawmakers are skeptical.
“Unfortunately, I believe we’re going to see increased cases of HIV, because just redistributing the funds to other providers doesn’t equal the same amount of health care,” said state Representative Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who also signed the letter. “There’s no policy-based answer as to why they did what they did.”
In their letter, lawmakers gave DSHS until January 29 to respond. As of Friday morning — almost a week after the deadline — DSHS had not given the representatives specific answers about its reasons for the ouster, but rather told Israel’s office that they were working on it. DSHS did provide Israel’s office with information about the new contracts with county health departments. Williams told the Observer the agency is “preparing a response” to the lawmakers’ letter.
Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates have come under renewed fire from state leaders after last summer’s release of highly edited videos produced by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, purporting to show the organization illegally profiting from fetal tissue donations. A Harris County grand jury recently cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing with regard to their tissue donation practices, but lawmakers are still pursuing two other investigations.
Williams said the videos didn’t play a role in this latest ouster.
“We have the discretion not to renew contracts when they are up for renewal,” Williams said. “We’ve opted to provide these services through local health departments. The same money is going out to provide the same services, just with different contractors.”
Legacy Community Health Services, a federally qualified health center in Houston, also receives DSHS funding for the same program. Executive director Katy Caldwell said the organization has had a long-standing, “well-coordinated” effort with Planned Parenthood.
“We had a very good working relationship with Planned Parenthood, so we were all able to reach our target populations, and it was well coordinated so that Planned Parenthood and us didn’t show up at the same place and same time” to conduct testing and outreach, she said. “We’re hopeful that we can coordinate and develop a good working relationship with whoever has this funding.” Democratic state representatives insist politics are at play in this latest defunding move, writing in their letter that the state’s actions are part of an “ongoing assault” on Planned Parenthood that has reached “a new, dangerous low.”
“We cannot imagine any other contractor performing life-saving services being treated as poorly given similar circumstances,” they wrote. “Politics appear to be getting in the way of public health, and Texans expect more.”
Equality Texas, an LGBT rights policy and advocacy organization, is calling on DSHS to reinstate Planned Parenthood in the HIV Prevention Program.
“Equality Texas understands firsthand how the spread of malicious lies and false accusations of illegal activity can affect the public safety and public health of LGBT communities,” executive director Chuck Smith said in a press release. “Now that a Harris County grand jury has cleared Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of all wrongdoing we are calling on the Texas Department of State Health Services to reinstate HIV/PrEP prevention funding to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.”