In early July, Texas launched the new Healthy Texas Women program, the end result of the consolidation of the Texas Women’s Health Program and the Expanded Primary Health Care for Women program. The program, run by the Health and Human Services Commission, was created to be a one-stop shop for Texas women that would provide pregnancy tests, cervical and breast cancer screenings and treatment, birth control, and family planning services. The only thing the program won’t provide—as per the state’s rules—is access or information about abortions. Two weeks ago, Healthy Texas Women announced some of the recipients of its $18 million fund, and among them was the Heidi Group, a nonprofit founded and led by anti-abortion activist Carol Everett. At $1.6 million, the Heidi Group’s award comes second only to the $1.7 million awarded to Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.
Reproductive rights organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and Progress Texas, along with state Representative Jessica Farrar, have called for an audit on the decision to award the Heidi Group with the hefty grant. In a letter written to the state auditor’s office, Progress Texas calls into question if the group’s legitimacy as a women’s health provider:
The Heidi Group has no capacity to provide women’s health care services, which is the express purpose of the HTW program. The group employs no doctors, nor does it operate any health clinics. Moreover, the group has no record of coordinating the provision of health care services among health care providers in the state.
Everett has stated that the Heidi Group plans to use the fund to contract with 25 doctors and clinics, particularly those in rural areas, to provide health care services to women. Charles Smith, the head of HHSC, said that the Healthy Texas Women fund was open to non-licensed applicants as long as they partnered with licensed health care providers in order to provide services.
Still, some are skeptical of the group’s staunch anti-abortion beliefs. “We cannot have a biased ideology driving the health care of women in this state. This type of ideology based on this type of granting of an award is detrimental to the health care of women in this state,” Farrar, who is also the chairwoman of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, told the Houston Chronicle.
The concerns about “biased ideology” informing women’s health care began in 2011, when Texas lawmakers began defunding Planned Parenthood by making budget cuts to the state’s family planning programs, and then removing the organization from the Medicaid-run Women’s Health Program. Although the Planned Parenthood clinics in the Women’s Health Program did not provide abortions, their connection the medical procedure was enough to edge them out of the program after lawmakers began enforcing a 2005 law that prevents clinics affiliated with abortion providers from participating. The family funding budget from the Department of State Health services went from $111.5 million in 2010-2011 to $37.9 million for the following two years. After Texas removed Planned Parenthood from the Women’s Health Program, the federal government, which provided a $9-to-$1 match for the program’s funding, declined to renew the program.
Texas was left with the question of how to provide the 100,000 women enrolled in the program—45 percent of whom had relied on Planned Parenthood for treatment—with access to health care necessities such as cancer screenings and birth control. Then-governor Rick Perry claimed that Texas would do just fine in funding and providing health care for low-income women (even after slashing the family funding budget), and thus came the creation of the state-funded Texas Women’s Health Program, which launched on January 1, 2013. When the program’s first report came out in 2015, Texas Monthly found that despite reassurances that women left without health care after Planned Parenthood was cut would have alternatives, there had been a 9.1 percent drop in enrollment. A decrease in coverage can also be seen in the claims made for oral contraception, which decreased from 191,000 in 2011 to 88,000 in 2013. Although the report indicated that the decline showed an increased preference for other methods of contraception, Hannah Smothers explained that it was more indicative of Planned Parenthood’s lost ground. Smothers wrote:
The sharp drop in oral contraceptive claims really illustrates how the loss of Planned Parenthood clinics made an impact on the WHP. In 2011 claims for the pill accounted for 31 percent of all contraceptive claims under the Women’s Health Program. In 2013 that percentage dropped to 16.8, a rapid decline that doesn’t jibe with the fact that oral contraceptives are still the most widely used form of birth control in the country. It would seem the dip is simply a matter of access. “Planned Parenthood administers a lot of oral contraceptives, and when you exclude a provider that provides more of a certain kind of method, that method is going to decrease,” Stevenson says.
The struggle for the Texas Women’s Health Program to fill the Planned Parenthood-sized hole continued until the announcement of the consolidation of the Texas Women’s Health Program and the Expanded Primary Health Care Program into Healthy Texas Women. The new program, like the 2005 law and the 2011 budget cuts, seems to be yet another round of changes to women’s health care in Texas fueled by the desire to cut off Planned Parenthood and access to legal abortions.
So it’s all been ideologically based, which sheds light on why the state would fork over money to an anti-abortion group.
For her part, the Heidi Group’s Everett has objected to questions raised about her group receiving state funding. “I’m the known pro-lifer and it’s just been horrible that pro-lifers can’t get this money,” she told the Houston Chronicle.
Everett isn’t just a well known anti-abortion activist, she’s also a member of the Women’s Health Advisory Committee, which advises the Health and Human Services Commission on health programs for women. Some of Everett’s most recent public statements include those made at the recent hearing concerning HHSC’s rule changes to fetal tissue disposal. There, Everett raised concerns about the current disposal method spreading STDs through the water system. “There’s several health concerns,” Everett told Fox 7. “What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply?”
Bryan Black, a spokesperson for the HHSC, stated that the Heidi Group had “one of the most robust” grant applications. But it’s still a large sum of state money to award to a group with no history of providing health care services and whose leader has inaccurate ideas of how STDs are contracted, no matter how “robust” the proposal. But after the round of budget cuts and program changes Texas has experienced in the past five years aimed at access to legal abortion, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.