CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
On Thursday, a panel of Texas lawmakers convened a hearing to discuss how to build on the state’s “previous legislative achievements in women’s healthcare.” The Senate committee invited two men — the executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services and the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services — to testify about women’s access to preventative health services.
State Sen. Jane Nelson (R), who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, told the Texas Tribune that the hearing is intended to discuss the “progress” in running the new Texas Women’s Health Program. That program, which provides check-ups and birth control for low-income women in the state, was recently relaunched to allow Texas to defund Planned Parenthood.
But reproductive rights advocates are protesting Nelson’s hearing, saying it fails to address critical topics like abortion access, comprehensive sex ed, and the uninsurance rate. They point out it’s impossible to talk about women’s health in Texas without addressing the state’s devastating cuts to Planned Parenthood, relentless attacks on family planning funds, and the new restrictions on abortion. And they’re not very happy with the new Texas Women’s Health Program.
Over the past several years, the family planning network in Texas has been crippled by deep cuts, leaving low-income and rural women struggling to get the basic care they need. On top of that, a sweeping new package of abortion restrictions is forcing clinics across the state to close their doors. And, since the state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid, an estimated one million men and women don’t have access to affordable health insurance.
“These have been the most devastating years for women’s health care in Texas in a generation,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates several abortion clinics in the state, noted in a statement.
Planned Parenthood’s Texas affiliate sent out an action alert to its supporters, urging them to tell Nelson to truly protect women’s health by restoring the full funding for family planning services. Protesters flooded the Texas Capitol to offer their own testimony, and reproductive rights groups organized a press conference to follow the hearing featuring people who have been directly impacted by the Texas legislature’s crusade against women’s health.
Amy Kamp is one of the Texans who will speak at Thursday’s press conference. “When I heard about the hearing — well, I felt like if the Daily Show was going to create a parody, they couldn’t have done a better job,” Kamp told ThinkProgress in an interview. “If Texas wants to protect women’s health, I have a helpful suggestion. Just reinstate the old program we used to have!”
Before Texas decided to relaunch its Women’s Health Program at the beginning of 2013, it was run like most other publicly funded family planning programs in the country. A combination of state and federal funds reimbursed providers who offered preventative care to low-income residents, including people who relied on Medicaid and people who went uninsured altogether. Planned Parenthood was the largest provider in that network. But state lawmakers decided to go after the national women’s health organization because it offers abortion care, pushing to exclude it from the family planning network altogether.
When Texas kicked out Planned Parenthood, the program lost its federal funding, since states aren’t allowed to discriminate against qualified providers simply because they also provide abortions. Since then, the new Women’s Health Program has struggled to get off the ground, while Planned Parenthood clinics have taken a huge financial blow. The women who used to rely on the free care from Planned Parenthood have been forced to find new doctors.
That was Kamp’s situation. A few years ago, she was uninsured, so went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin. That’s where she found out she had contracted HPV. Planned Parenthood helped her navigate the state’s health system to get the follow-up care she needed, something she says she’s still grateful for. But when Texas kicked Planned Parenthood out of the state’s network of family planning providers, and relaunched the Texas Women’s Health program without it, Kamp didn’t end up enrolling.
“It was confusing — I’d call clinics to make an appointment, but they didn’t know what was going on, even though the state put them on the list of available providers. The wait times were really long,” Kamp explained. “One thing it seems like lawmakers don’t always understand is that if you don’t have money, it’s not because you have a lot of time. It’s not because you’re sitting around doing nothing. You’re still working, you’re just not making much money… Taking out the time to navigate all of this is a real obstacle for many women.”
Kamp’s story isn’t unique. According to a review of state data conducted by the Texas Tribune, enrollment numbers in the Women’s Health Program are lower than they used to be. And claims for wellness exams and birth control pills have also dropped. The state program served about 287,730 women in 2005 — but last year, it served just 47,322.
In many ways, the Lone Star State has served as Ground Zero for conservative lawmakers’ efforts to chip away at women’s health care. It’s been a testing ground for some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and as a result, an estimated 22,000 women in the state will lack access to safe abortion access this year. According to the researchers at the Texas Evaluation Project, who have been studying the impact of Texas’ rounds of family planning cuts, the damage that’s been done to the social safety net will take years to recover from. Although the upcoming state budget does allocate additional funding for the new Women’s Health Program, that’s not quite the legislative achievement the Senate is making it out to be.