Defending Planned Parenthood

New action group formed to combat potential funding cuts

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BRATTLEBORO — A new local action group is being formed in response to potential federal funding cuts to Planned Parenthood.

"I believe we need more Planned Parenthoods ... it's a model for health care," said Lisa Ford, founder of the new local action group Planned Parenthood Defenders Group of Southern Vt.

"The bill that the House passed is probably the worst assault on reproductive and women's health care in a generation," said Lucy Leriche, vice president of Public Policy Vermont for Planned Parenthood Northern New England. The bill, she said, is certainly the worst she's seen.

Leriche said the new bill is a specific attack on Medicaid patients. Under the new legislation, Planned Parenthood would no longer be able to serve Medicaid patients, which make up 69 percent of Planned Parenthood's national patient base, according to Leriche. They make up 34 percent of the patients in New England and 47 percent in Vermont. In Brattleboro, 65 percent of the patients served have an income of $17,820 or less.

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood has looked especially unstable since President Donald Trump took office. In April, Trump signed legislation that nullified a previous rule stating that states and local governments were not allowed to withhold funds for abortions. The health care repeal and replace bill passed in early May by the House, also takes aim at Planned Parenthood funding. The bill prohibits states from using "direct spending," from the Affordable Healthcare Act towards any providers that primarily offer reproductive health and family planning services, according to Business Insider.

This means patients who rely on federal programs like Medicaid would have to pay out of pocket to use Planned Parenthood services. Before this legislation it was and remains illegal for federal funding to go to abortions. Medicaid patients who go to Planned Parenthood go for services like mammograms, pap smears and other general and reproductive healthcare operations.

The Senate has yet to vote on the new health care bill and isn't expected to until August.

Meanwhile, Ford is gathering a base to ensure that, no matter what, the Brattleboro Planned Parenthood clinic is able to serve all its patients. The Brattleboro clinic does not provide abortion services, but in 2016 it did serve 1,193 patients and offered its lower income patients $99,103 worth of services. Brattleboro Planned Parenthood isn't just geared to women's reproductive health. The clinic also offers treatment for jock itch, tests for testicular cancer, screenings for high cholesterol and diabetes, smoking cessation therapy, referrals for intimate partner violence, counseling for obesity and mental health services, and hormone therapy.

Ford is especially concerned about what the loss of funding could do to teenagers. In 2016, 19 percent of the Brattleboro clinic's patients were teenagers and 44 percent were in their 20s. Ford has two teenage daughters and remembers using Planned Parenthood when she was younger.

"It's so accessible for teenagers," Ford said. "It's private... You don't always want to go to your family pediatrician who's known you since you were a baby and talk about these sensitive topics.'"

Ford added that lots of kids might not have primary physicians. "There's a population here who's transient."

Christine Linn, director of youth development at Youth Services, is concerned about what will happen to her clients should Planned Parenthood close.

She has many clients who don't have a stable adult, or who are couch surfing. Some don't have health care.

"Planned Parenthood is the go-to for a lot of our clients for their reproductive health needs," Linn said. Linn went to the last Planned Parenthood Defenders Group. During the meeting, Linn said, the question arose "what would happen if Planned Parenthood didn't exist?"

"It's not just about lack of access to health care," Linn said. "It's about lack of access to health care for people who are systematically disenfranchised."

Planned Parenthood appeals to people like Linn's clients because it's trauma informed and has an open door policy.

"A lot of our clients have had [experience with] trauma and are distrustful of a lot of systems, with good cause," Linn said. Planned Parenthood is well trained in trauma-informed care. "The idea is you're acknowledging that accessing systems isn't as straight forward for everyone as it could be," Linn said. "When you've been traumatized - whether you have a history of sexual abuse, or physical abuse, or verbal abuse, or emotional abuse, or even just stress from chronic poverty or homelessness or you've had your children taken - it affects the brain differently. People who have a trauma history, or PTSD, it shuts off certain parts of the brain. So long term planning isn't always a strength." The brain isn't focused on a future because it's constantly in fight or flight mode, but she said Planned Parenthood is a clinic where things are always straight forward and practitioners are always patient with the clients.

The open door policy is also helpful to Linn's clients, many of whom are teenagers. Follow through, because of their age, poor experiences at other clinics and because of the lack stability in their lives, is harder.

One of the most appealing things Linn sees in the defenders group is the advocacy piece. At Youth Services, once clients have maintained a level of stability, the organization works with them to teach them how to advocate for themselves. Planned Parenthood Northern New England is working on furthering patient-designed programs. They want patients to be involved in how their health care works and is maintained. This is especially important to Linn's clients.

"It gives them a voice," she said.

Mimi Brill, a community member and member of the Planned Parenthood Defenders Group, used to worked as a community advocate and worked in women's healthcare. "You need to have safe and available abortions as women's health options," she said.

Brill and Ford think Planned Parenthood is important and different from other general health clinics because of its focus in reproductive health care.

"I think gynecological healthcare is different, and that [it needs] to be a safe, comfortable place to go," Brill said. "It's very private."

She said the environment Planned Parenthood provides makes it easier for people to talk about their health concerns.

Ford added that there aren't many affordable clinics.

"There's one free clinic here that's open maybe a few hours a week," Ford said, referring to the Brattleboro Walk in Clinic which is open Tuesdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Southern Vermont hasn't made an organized effort to support Planned Parenthood. Despite active organizers in Keene, N.H., and northern Vermont, Ford said she hasn't seen many organized efforts or fundraisers coming out of southern Vermont. Organized activism often comes from grassroots efforts that are supported by Planned Parenthood Northern New England. Ford said there's training that Planned Parenthood does for interested organizers to make sure the right language and campaigns are used.     

Despite the lack of organized efforts both Brill and Ford think there is support for Planned Parenthood in southern Vermont.

The Brattleboro clinic hopes to soon change location to a more modern clinic. The current building is old and needs to be updated for the building code. They clinic also wants to be able to have more room to serve more patients. The clinic has already raised funds to relocate and renovate the site, but is still in the process of finding a centrally located Planned Parenthood.

"They're certainly going to need more money to face the challenges ahead," Brill said.

On Sunday there will be a training session for local advocates, 5 to 7 p.m., at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. The training will look at how to fundraise, how to talk to legislatures and how to educate others about Planned Parenthood. The goal is to provide the same level of treatment and services to everyone, no matter what happens to the clinic's federal funding.

"We feel confident we will prevail," Leriche said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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