Planned Parenthood declines federal funding after new strings attached

It’s important that we maintain women’s rights and access to health care. It’s unfortunate we are at this point. — Gov. Phil Scott

VERMONT — On Monday, Planned Parenthood bowed out of receiving federal funds due to a restrictive Trump administration rule — and Vermont, a state with no alternative funding recipients, will now forgo the money entirely.

The new rule does not allow states to pass on federal funds to agencies that may refer health care clients for abortions, even if those funds won’t be used for abortions.

Several Vermont state bodies, including the Legislature, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Agency of Human Services, are working to ensure that Planned Parenthood retains the funds to operate. During the 2019 legislative session, the Legislature put money into a contingency fund; now, Planned Parenthood is making use of those emergency measures.

But as for the federal money that Vermont has received annually since 1970? Unless national lawmakers changes its mind, Vermont will pass up the funds from here on out.

“We’ve been getting this [money] year after year,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. “But this time, we are saying that we cannot accept it because of the stipulations of the final rule. So we won’t use the federal funds to reimburse our sub-grantee, who is Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, for these services.”

The federal money in question is granted through Title X, a program that funds birth control and reproductive health services for low-income Americans. It helps consumers access screenings, contraception, and STD (sexually transmitted disease) treatment. It does not pay for abortions.

Traditionally, Title X money has been given to states’ health departments for those departments to allocate. But in Vermont, Planned Parenthood is the only recognized provider of family planning services — and so for years, the organization has received all of the state’s Title X money.

About 11,000 Vermonters a year have been served from Title X funds.

After leaving the rule largely untouched for decades, last month, the federal government stipulated that Title X funding cannot go to organizations that provide or refer patients for abortions.

Planned Parenthood has refused to comply with the new standards. Vermont has been left with no alternative recipients.

According to a variety of Vermont officials and medical professionals, the “gag rule” is against both medical best practices and Vermont law.

Levine said that even if the Legislature hadn’t passed a law protcting Vermonters’ abortion rights this spring, the health department would have supported Planned Parenthood. But, he said, the legality question “adds another dimension” to the conversation.

“Now, not only would you be challenging your own set of ethics, but then you would also be potentially violating state law,” Levine added.

In a press release from the Vermont Department of Health, Gov. Phil Scott voiced similar support for the Legislature’s protective measures.

“It’s important that we maintain women’s rights and access to health care,” Scott said in the press release. “It’s unfortunate we are at this point, but I appreciate the collaboration with the Attorney General and Legislature to put aside contingency funding in the … budget.”

Vermont joins Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts and Maryland in foregoing Title X funds, Gov. Scott added.

Levine said that the contingency plan will last until the end of June 2020. Until then, the state funds mean that Vermont’s Planned Parenthood shouldn’t feel immediate repercussions from the financial loss.

But long term, the organization stated in a press release that it is committed to fighting back against the rule — and to serving its patients, regardless of political climate.

“We refuse to let the Trump administration bully us into withholding abortion information from our patients in Vermont. The gag rule is unethical and dangerous, and we will not subject our patients to it,” Lucy Leriche, the Vermont Planned Parenthood vice president of public policy, wrote in a press release.

“Our doors are still open today, and they will be open tomorrow,” she continued. “We are committed to serving all of our patients in Vermont, no matter what happens in Washington, D.C.”

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