Athena Mason’s first doctor’s visit as a student at Texas A&M University was a bit awkward. She had gone in for a basic checkup, but the physician noticed something else.
“I had a hickey and the doctor was just like, 'You shouldn’t be doing that,'" Mason said. "And I’m like, 'It’s a hickey, it’s nothing major.' But I got a big lecture my boyfriend was abusive and all of these things. And then I asked for birth control, and I did not hear the end of that. So I said never mind, I’ll go someplace else.”
That experience led her to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan. But on Aug. 1, that clinic closed. Mason now drives three hours to her home in Fort Worth to see a doctor. She knows she’s lucky to have that option.
"A lot of my friends have come up to me and they’re like, 'Oh my gosh, I had an appointment next week, but it’s closed now and I didn’t even know,'" she said.
The Bryan clinic was one of two abortion and women’s health providers in Texas that closed last month. All of the closing clinics cited the state’s new abortion law — which makes Mason and Bryan resident Cadence King collateral damage from the new legislative restrictions.
“If there’s a woman who has reached a decision, she needs an abortion, she’s going to find a place to go," King said. "There’s going to be a place that she can go. Yeah, she’s going to have to drive, and that’s supremely unfortunate. But overall, the majority of women that are going to hurt are the ones that need just the routine health care.”
Anti-abortion groups argue there are still plenty of doctors and clinics available to help women find a new provider. The group Pro-Life Aggies ran a full-page ad in the Texas A&M newspaper offering alternatives to the closed Planned Parenthood clinic. But many weren’t taking new patients — or worse, King said, didn’t deal with women’s health at all.
“There’s a long list of providers here in town," she said. "They consist of podiatrists and optometrists — and my eyes and my feet are fine.”
These stories are nothing new to Jose Camacho, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. He said the access problem is best summed up by one number: 23 percent. In 2011, the Legislature cut funding for a state program that provides preventative care to low-income women. Since those cuts, the number of claims filed under that program is down by 23 percent.
“There weren’t any less women that needed the service," Camacho said. "There were just less women that got served."
This spring, the Legislature added back millions for family planning. And Camacho’s clinics are ready to hire more staff and expand services. But the money hasn’t shown up yet. Once it does, Camacho said, restoring services will be like cleaning up after a natural disaster.
"The day you get your check or loan or whatever from FEMA, your house doesn’t magically appear," Camacho said. "The devastation that’s been wreaked doesn’t go away. You have to rebuild. And that’s what we have to do."
But King says she can’t wait much longer. She’d been visiting the Bryan clinic since 1998 after she was diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells on her cervix.
She had regular checkups over the years to monitor her condition and make sure it wasn’t progressing. Since the clinic closed, she’s missed a couple of her regular scheduled visits because she’s having trouble finding another provider.
“I’m probably up against that window right now," King said. "There are some decisions that I need to make. And sticking your head in the sand is only good for so long."
So far, her options are driving three hours each way to visit a clinic in Beaumont or making an appointment with the one clinic willing to take her in Bryan. But its next open appointment is about four months away.