Opinion: Cutting Reproductive Health Services Doesn't Save Money--It Wastes It

Jobs. That’s what an incoming Congress promised us last fall, as a way out of our current economic doldrums. But after more than 60 days of the current Congress, federal elected officials have reneged on offering a single job bill. Instead, their agenda has been packed with cuts targeting vulnerable communities, including slashing women’s health care by gutting public health family planning programs.  That’s not only morally wrong, it’s fiscally irresponsible.

At National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, our primary concern is maintaining the dignity and justice of all women and we strongly advocate for public funding for reproductive health care for ideological reasons. But, preventive care also saves money in the long run. In fact, studies show that for every dollar invested in family planning, taxpayers save roughly $4 at a minimum.   Eleven states have introduced bills to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest reproductive health care provider. In Texas, lawmakers were at an impasse over the renewal of the state’s Women’s Health Program, and threatened to let the program expire – despite the fact that it saves $20 million a year in Medicaid spending.

Talk about misguided priorities. At a time when our families need more access to health care, not less, lawmakers are fighting over birth control and lifesaving cancer screenings.

These bills would have a devastating impact on low-income women, particularly Latinas and communities of color.  Latinas have the highest rate of uninsured and underinsured. Latinas also face a unique and complex array of reproductive health and rights issues that are exacerbated by poverty, gender bias, racial and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia. These circumstances make it especially difficult for Latinas to access reproductive health care services.

In a new analysis of publicly subsidized family planning services, the Guttmacher Institute found that Title X family planning centers are the gateway for many women and families into the complicated and confusing U.S. health care system. Six in 10 women who go to a family planning center describe it as “their usual source of medical care and in some cases it may be their exclusive source.”

Clinics that are funded by Title X help Latinas prevent unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and breast and cervical cancer. Latinas have higher prevalence of all these conditions due to limited access to care.  Title X clinics offer the preventative services that are necessary to reduce the devastating reproductive health disparities facing Latinas.

When Title X programs are stripped of funding, health centers are forced to close, leaving families without any place to turn for care. In 2009, more than 36 percent of community health center patients were Latinos, and an additional 865,000 patients were migrant and seasonal farm workers.  Cuts to these vital programs means that Latinas and their families are not receiving the life-saving preventative care that is critical to healthy lives and healthy communities.

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Even women who have health insurance can find themselves struggling to meet basic reproductive health needs in this economic environment. Take the story of Jersey Garcia, a working mother who was shocked to learn that despite having health insurance through her employer, she couldn’t afford to resume her birth control after having her baby.  Her insurance company told her she would have to pay $800 in fees beyond what it would cover and switching to the birth control pill would mean excessive monthly expenses. Given the cost of co-pays and other fees, over the span of a lifetime, a woman could end up paying more than $15,000 for basic birth control.

Latinas are the country’s youngest and fastest growing population; our reproductive health affects the entire nation across many communities. As the only national Latina reproductive health and justice organization, we own our place in the frontlines of this fight and in breaking down barriers to health care for all women. We are calling on lawmakers to come back to their senses and remember what most voters were concerned about on election day: jobs and the economy, not callous, political attempts to restrict access to reproductive health services at our expense. It is possible to have both good economic policies that help move our country out of fiscal crisis as well as health policy grounded in dignity, justice, and access for all.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román is the Director of Policy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which advocates for to reproductive health and justice for Latinas, their families and their communities through public education, community mobilization and policy advocacy. You can reach her at nlirh@latinainstitute.org.

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