Planned Parenthood’s Alaska chapter leaves federal family planning program over federal gag rule

The Alaska chapter of Planned Parenthood announced last week that it has withdrawn from the federal Title X family planning program over a controversial rule changed handed down on the federal level.

Title X is a long-running federal program that provides family planning services to low-income families or the uninsured. The funds made available through the program are specifically barred from going to abortion services, and under the Trump administration even giving patients information on where and how to get an abortion constitutes supporting abortion.

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands and other Planned Parenthood organizations nationwide announced last week that the rule is an unethical gag rule on health care providers. Previously, the rules required providers to inform patients where they could get abortions, if they asked.

The change rule was opposed by Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. The pair wrote a letter opposing the change to the feds last summer.

“We oppose federal funding of abortion. Yet we have also consistently opposed efforts to restrict certain providers from Title X and other federal health care programs because we believe that timely and convenient access to contraception services has been critical to reducing the number of abortions in our country over the past three decades,” they wrote. “As the American Medical Association rightly observes, ‘High-quality medical care relies on honest, unfiltered conversations between patients and their physicians. Gag orders that restrict the ability of physicians to explain all options to their patients refer them—whatever their health care needs—compromise this relationship and force physicians and nurses to withhold information that their patients need to make decisions about their care.’”

They also were critical of a rule change would require abortions be performed in a separate building from other health services, calling the rules “overly burdensome” and would “significantly diminish access to contraceptive care.”

Both changes were implemented this month by the Trump administration after the latest court ruling in the legal battle over the regulations. The House has already voted to block the rule changes in its latest budget bill. Murkowski has not issued a public statement on the implementation of the rule changes since last week.

Impact on Alaska

Planned Parenthood currently serves about 74 percent of the patients (more than 6,000 people) served by Title X in Alaska, explains the announcement by the group. Some other Planned Parenthood organizations, like the one in Minnesota, have said they’ll be considering implementing fees. That means that people who were previously able to get family planning services and health screenings of any kind from Planned Parenthood for free will no longer be able to do so, at least in those states.

There’s no clear plan yet for Alaska’s chapter.

“We’re going to do everything we can to offer the same care to all of our patients, but we know that’s not sustainable,” Planned Parenthood’s Alaska Director Jessica Cler told KTOO.

While supporters of the rule argue that the loss of Planned Parenthood in the Title X space will be made up by other health care providers, Murkowski outlined concern for access if the rules were passed.

“Some suggest that should existing Title X grantees no longer qualify, other health care providers could fill the gap. In reality, many of these providers do not have the capacity to absorb all these patients overnight, nor may they have as much expertise in reproductive health,” Murkowski and Collins wrote in their letter. “Some patients will lose access to a trusted provider, while others may wait longer for an appointment. In more rural areas of the country, such as Maine or Alaska, the closure of a facility could force patients to drive hundreds of miles or even take a flight if they wish to receive the same services for the same prices.”

Many Alaskans living in rural Alaska already have to travel for many health services, including abortions.

Double whammy

In the announcement last week, Cler was particularly critical of the timing of the rule changes with Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s repeat of earlier vetoes that hit the state’s Medicaid program. Between cuts made by the Legislature and the governor’s vetoes, the state has a $77 million cut to its Medicaid program.

Many in the health industry calls the governor’s cuts unrealistic because of the way federal entitlement program operates.

Cler said the vetoes will make it even more difficult for low-income and uninsured Alaskans to get proper health care.

“Governor Mike Dunleavy is unfit to govern,” Cler said. “At a time when the federal government is directly attacking health care across this country, especially reproductive health care, we can’t afford this inept governor. Alaska already faces significant barriers to care and Gov. Dunleavy knows this. The loss of Title X funding on top of the budget cuts to Medicaid will have detrimental impacts in people’s ability to access cancer screenings, birth control, and basic health care, especially for the most vulnerable people in Alaska. We will keep fighting back and speaking out against these disastrous cuts.”

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