Women Can't Win for Losing

New bill has self-destruct mechanism for Women's Health Program

Sen. José Rodríguez cast the lone no vote against the poison-pill Women's Health Program bill.
Sen. José Rodríguez cast the lone "no" vote against the poison-pill Women's Health Program bill.

The Senate's Health and Human Services Committee on May 3 approved a new version of a bill to renew the successful Women's Health Program, which in 2008 alone saved the state some $40 million in health care costs. But the bill could also shut down the program, cutting roughly 90,000 low-income, uninsured women out of basic health care.

A proposal by Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, would shutter the Medicaid-waiver program should any health care provider successfully challenge in court the state's new definition of abortion "affiliate." The provision is a clear shot across the bow of Planned Parenthood, which serves 41% of the WHP clients at its clinics. Last year, Deuell sent a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott asking if it would be possible to cut Planned Parenthood out of the WHP loop by redefining what it means to be an "affiliate" of an abortion provider. Abbott said there wouldn't be a legal problem with defining PP has an affiliate, even though the state's clinics have taken steps to legally separate themselves from each other via separate boards of directors, bank accounts, and signage.

The state tried once before to block Planned Parenthood from federal funds and ultimately lost in court; should a new definition be imposed – the HHSC is working on one now – PP would likely sue, arguing that the state may not cut off federal funds for basic health services simply because it dislikes another (legally protected) portion of the group's business. Federal funding does not support abortion care, which in Texas makes up less than 5% of Planned Parenthood's services.

But now, Deuell is seeking to take away from PP (or any other provider making a legal objection to the new definition) its due process right to challenge the state in court. If Planned Parenthood were to challenge the new affiliate rule – and win that suit – Deuell's bill would direct the state to entirely dismantle the WHP. "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," said Patricio Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parent­hood of Hidalgo County, in a press release. Hidalgo PP clinics provide fundamental care to some 23,000 low-income women each year.

This attack is not the session's first against the 90-year-old nonprofit. Under the guise of crippling the "abortion industry," Texas House lawmakers last month completely dismantled the state's family-planning program, a move that will likely see hundreds of thousands of women go without health care for at least the next two years. (For more, see "The War on Women's Health," April 22.) Until now, the WHP had been seen as a possible bright spot in this bleak landscape.

While the Health and Human Services Committee approved the bill in a 6-1 vote (Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, voted no; Dems Judith Zaffirini of Laredo and Royce West of Dallas were not present), it's unclear whether the whole Senate will approve the plan. Still, the Women's Health Program, which began as a demonstration project in 2006, is set to expire later this year unless the state reauthorizes it. So if lawmakers want to keep the successful program in place – a program that helps to reduce the very high number of Medicaid births in Texas (for which the state paid $2.7 billion in 2009 alone) – they'll have to come up with some sort of compromise to keep it.

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Women's Health Program, Robert Deuell, Greg Abbott, Planned Parenthood, Legislature

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