GEORGETOWN, Texas -- Joined by anti-abortion advocates and newly appointed Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek, Texas Governor Rick Perry promised the Texas Women's Health Program (WHP) is ready to go. The state-funded program is designed to provide cancer screenings and other women's health services to 130,000 low income women without the participation of Planned Parenthood or the federal government.
Governor Perry vowed to continue the program with state money after the federal government announced Medicaid matching funds responsible for 90 percent of the program's budget would be halted. Federal officials say a law passed by the legislature in 2011 barring Planned Parenthood and organizations affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the Women's Health Program violates women's right to choose their own provider.
"I'm proud to say that we now have 3,000 qualified providers ready and able to supply those preventative services and those screening through the Texas Women's Health Program," Perry told media Wednesday at the Lone Star Circle of Care at Lake Aire Medical Center.
The number is up 500 providers since the Texas WHP began expanding its network under the new law. Planned Parenthood treated some 50,000 WHP patients in 2011 -- a number critics of the state-run alternative say is simply too large to be absorbed by adding smaller individual providers.
For example, 2011 data provided by the Health and Human Services Commission shows that Planned Parenthood served 2,104 WHP clients in the Austin area. The next largest providers, People's Community Clinic and Community Care, served just 277 and 275 clients, respectively. Data from 2010 shows that although Planned Parenthood clinics comprised only two percent of listed WHP providers, they served nearly half of the program's clients. Of the remaining 98 percent of providers, 62 percent served 10 or fewer women that year.
Asked by KVUE how the same number of patients could realistically be served without Planned Parenthood, Perry instead turned the question to state versus federal control.
"If Planned Parenthood would be a partner in this if you will, if they're really interested in women's health care, I think they'll be part of a dissemination of information," said Perry. "But I don't have a question that the capacity will be there. I think there will be clinics that will be brought up to speed and opened up."
"Here's the real goal, is to have the federal government respect the State of Texas' desire, and not try to make one size fits all," Perry elaborated. "They basically said if you don't do it the way we want it done, then you're not going to get your money back, and we don't think that's right."
Some have raised concerns over the provider search feature on the Texas WHP website. Many have complained that single providers often show up multiple times, creating the appearance that there are more providers than there actually are. Others have claimed that some of the providers listed are laboratories that don't offer health services or physicians who don't accept WHP clients.
"I have heard the same thing and in fact there were legitimate complaints about that," Janek told KVUE Wednesday. Janek confirms his office has been busy fixing the issues with the website and expects the problems to be quickly resolved. The commissioner also says the erroneous number of local providers listed by the search feature is not tied to the master file, which accurately lists the total number of providers at around 3,000.
The state was scheduled to launch the Texas WHP Thursday, but Janek says due the ongoing legal wrangling, the program will likely remain in limbo, with Planned Parenthood continuing to receive state funding through Dec. 31. The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 8 in state court. Meanwhile, Perry says if Planned Parenthood should win its lawsuit, the state law offers only one alternative.
"They will kill this program and they will be responsible for denying these important health services to low income women in Texas," said Perry. "Such a lawsuit would only confirm that rather than be excluded by this program, they'd rather see no women's health care program at all."
"Today’s announcement is an important victory for every woman who relies on the Women’s Health Program for basic, preventive health care,” Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas President and CEO Ken Lambrecht wrote in a statement. "Our doors remain open today and always to every Texas woman in need of affordable, high quality health care.”
Supporters say the 70-year-old organization will continue to open its doors to women in need of affordable health services, despite the attempts of state leaders to drive Planned Parenthood out of Texas.
"Almost half the women in this program get these exams and these screenings at a Planned Parenthood health center," said Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas spokesperson Sarah Wheat. "That hasn't changed. Our commitment hasn't changed. What's changed is the politics around women's health care."
What's clear is the question of what the future may hold for Planned Parenthood in Texas still up in the air.