Four years after they first reconfigured state-subsidized health services for low-income women, Texas health officials are at it again as they consider how to consolidate two of the state’s main women’s health programs.
Following a directive from the Legislature, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced Wednesday that it would combine two women’s health programs to create the “Healthy Texas Women” program on July 1. The new initiative will be a consolidation of the Texas Women’s Health Program and the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which provide health screenings and contraception to poor women in the state.
Under the new program, women between the ages of 15 and 44 who have an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line will qualify for these services, extending eligibility to minors of child-bearing ages who did not previously qualify for these services. (The previous minimum age to qualify was 18.) Health officials noted that minors would need parental consent to receive any care.
Lawmakers, who said the consolidation would improve efficiency, endorsed the move by combining the two programs' funding in the 2016-17 state budget.
At a Wednesday meeting of the Women’s Health Advisory Committee — a panel of health professionals created by the Legislature to oversee the consolidation — HHSC Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor recognized that the timeline to launch the merged program was “extremely quick,” he but added that Texas would soon be in a position to be a “model for other states.”
“I look forward to beginning a new chapter of women’s health in Texas,” he added.
The decision to consolidate the two programs came four years after the Republican-led Legislature made sharp cuts to the state’s family planning budget and restructured the women’s health program — a move highly criticized by Democrats at the Capitol.
As part of those cuts made in 2011, the Legislature ousted Planned Parenthood from the joint state-federal Medicaid Women’s Health Program, costing the state a $9-to-$1 match from the feds. State health officials then restarted the program as the state-financed Texas Women’s Health Program.
Lawmakers revisited family planning financing in the 2013 legislative session, after the health commission estimated that an additional 24,000 babies would be born from unintended pregnancies in 2014 and 2015 as a result of the budget cuts, at a cost to the state of more than $100 million.
Lawmakers then passed a hefty financial package for women’s health, totaling $240.1 million in the 2014-15 budget, up from $127.3 million in the two years after the cuts — and $201.4 million in the two years before the cuts.
That’s when the Legislature created the Expanded Primary Health Care program with a $100 million allotment.
Lawmakers had said they wanted to consolidate the programs to make it easier for women to navigate the system, adding $50 million in additional funding for women’s health in the current budget.
But with fewer women already receiving state-financed reproductive health services, some lawmakers and health care advocates had warned against yet another round of changes, raising concerns that the state would lose providers who participate in the programs.
During the advisory meeting, some women’s health advocates raised caution about pinning the consolidation on the structure of the Texas Women’s Health Program.
Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, state policy and advocacy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said the program had not been successful, serving fewer women than was was supposed to.
“We need to make sure we’re not over correcting and applying $50 million to a program that has proven not to be effective,” Rodriguez DeFrates said.
Claims under the Texas Women’s Health Program had declined in recent years. In 2014, 397,000 claims for services were filed under the program — down from 418,000 the year before, according to figures from the health commission.
The advisory committee is expected to vote in the coming months on the benefits packages that will be offered under the Healthy Texas Women program.
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.