A House Republican warned Tuesday that proposed changes to a women's health program — intended to gut funding for Planned Parenthood clinics — would put lives in danger.
State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, objected to a Senate plan to alter the way money is distributed through a cancer screening program for low-income Texans. She convinced a House budget panel on Tuesday to approve a measure that takes aim at the plan, which she said could cause dozens of clinics — not just Planned Parenthood's — to close their doors.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to continue to fund the women’s health program so that we can make some type of a political statement as Republicans that we care about women, only to chip away at the safety net of the providers,” Davis said at a meeting of House health budget writers. “If we don’t have the provider network, women cannot be served. And they will die.”
Davis was concerned about a provision in the proposed Senate budget that creates funding tiers for clinics that provide cancer screenings. Public entities like state, county and community health clinics would get first crack at the cash. Private clinics that provide cancer screenings as part of comprehensive care would come in second place. Finally, private specialty clinics, like Planned Parenthood, would only get cancer-screening funding if there’s money left over.
Davis' measure would wipe out that priority system — but only if the federal government objects to the system and stops paying its share of the program. The feds now pay about $8.8 million a year, roughly 75 percent of the program's costs; the state pays the rest.
The Legislative Budget Board, which assists state lawmakers in writing the budget, expects Washington would object to the tiered system, Davis said, meaning that Texas stands to lose millions of federal dollars. Her proposal now heads to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration.
The Senate’s chief budget writer, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has said the proposed tiered funding is intended to ensure that facilities unaffiliated with abortion providers are funded first. Clinics are already prohibited from performing abortions if they receive tax dollars.
State Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, spoke at Tuesday's meeting in favor of the tiered system. He said he did not want to close any comprehensive health clinics unnecessarily, but that abortion remained a difficult issue for state lawmakers.
“I believe people deserve health care, they have a right to health care," he said. "Now, of course, this issue is going to come down to abortion, abortion providers, that sort of thing."
State Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the tiered system was a poorly disguised effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
"The purpose is, and let’s just be direct, is to go after one entity, and that is Planned Parenthood," Walle said. "There’s really no sugarcoating this."
Critics of the Senate plan also say that cancer clinics not affiliated with Planned Parenthood could be collateral damage. Under the proposal, at least 34 such clinics — nearly one-fifth of those in the program — would be moved into the second or third tier for funding.
The screening program served nearly 34,000 Texas women last year — 57 percent of whom were Hispanic.
For years, the Republican-led Legislature has worked to keep Planned Parenthood and other organizations even loosely affiliated with abortion providers from receiving state dollars for health care for poor women. In 2011, lawmakers ousted the organization from the joint state-federal Medicaid Women’s Health Program, leading the federal government to withdraw its match.
State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said he expected more fiery debate about women’s health programs this year.
“I think that’s an issue that will probably receive quite a bit of attention,” he said. “It is a long way from a decided issue.”
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.