Rally Targets Possible End of Women's Health Program

Protesters on March 6, 2012, rallying at the Capitol against the likely demise of the state's Women's Health Program.
Protesters on March 6, 2012, rallying at the Capitol against the likely demise of the state's Women's Health Program.

Austin musician Marcia Ball is not a political activist. But after hearing that the state Women’s Health Program would lose federal funding as a result of the Legislature’s decision to exclude Planned Parenthood from the state Medicaid program, she organized a protest that drew hundreds of people to the state Capitol today. 

“I just got fed up,” Ball said. “I suspected there were many people like me, including Christians and people of all ages, who think it’s a mistake to defund low-income women’s basic health care. All this defunding for political gain is hurting hundreds of thousands of low-income women.” 

The rally drew progressive political activists, local musicians, state representatives and women’s health clinic employees. Passing cars honked in support as protesters held up signs with slogans such as “Don’t Mess with Texas Women” and “I’m a Christian and I Believe in Science, Birth Control, and Tolerance.” 

“I’ve been protesting [for women’s rights] since the '60s and '70s, when I was at UT,” said Anita Quintanilla. “I thought by the ‘80s, we wouldn’t have to be protesting for women’s rights. I have a 21-year-old daughter, and I hoped she wouldn’t have to worry about women’s rights. I’m fighting for her.” 

The Women’s Health Program — a Medicaid waiver first passed by the Legislature in 2001, vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, and revived in 2005 — receives $9 from the federal government for every dollar the state invests. Republican lawmakers are willing to allow the entire Women's Health Program to end rather than let Planned Parenthood participate.

Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs recently signed a rule that formally bans Planned Parenthood clinics and other "affiliates of abortion providers" from participating in the program — something the Obama administration has said is a deal-breaker for the nearly $40 million-per-year state-federal Medicaid program.  

"I think the rally shows the same thing we've been saying," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission. "[The Women's Health Program] is valuable and worth saving, whichever side of the rule you're on. But we also feel that Texas is on firm legal ground. Federal law gives states both the right and the responsibility to set qualifications for its Medicaid providers."

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the White House is to blame in the dispute.

"Gov. Perry and lawmakers are fighting to continue the WHP, but unfortunately, its fate rests in the hands of the Obama Administration which is willing to end a good program that serves more than 100,000 Texas women to save less than 2 percent of providers," Frazier said. "Although federal law allows the states to set the criteria for qualified providers in Medicaid programs, now the Obama Administration is holding the WHP hostage because Texas state law does not fit its pro-abortion agenda."

Anne Dunkelberg, a health policy expert at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who also attended the rally, said the funding cuts would sharply reduce important health services for thousands of Texas women.

“We already cut family planning for 150,000 women when the state health department got cut,” she said. “If we cut the Women’s Health Program, 115,000 more women will lose family planning services. That’s an 80 percent reduction in family planning. Pap tests, breast exams, that’s wrapped up in the package of family planning services.” 

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, was among those who helped Ball with the rally.

“This will definitely send a signal to members of the Legislature and Congress that it’s going to be hard to pass these cuts and policy changes in the future without facing opposition from women and their friends,” Naishtat said. “Marcia has started the ball rolling, and I think there's no end in sight. What starts in Austin reaches the whole state and country.” 

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