A program to provide free, long acting reversible birth control to young, low-income women in Colorado is being extended for another year. This comes despite state lawmakers failing to pass a bill to fund the effort. As Bente Birkeland reports, health officials have been scrambling to find a way to continue the successful initiative.
For the past five years, a private anonymous grant has allowed about 40 health clinics across the state to provide intrauterine devices and other long acting reversible birth control to women ranging from ages 15 to 25.
“We’re astounded by what we were able to accomplish and the number of women we were able to see, as well as the number of patients who chose the long acting reversible contraception,” said Liz Romer. She’s a nurse practitioner and directs the family program for Children’s Hospital Colorado. She runs one of the clinics.
Romer said nearly three-quarters of the women they counsel use the long acting contraceptives which – according to state figures – have helped cut teen pregnancy rates in the state by 40 percent. Abortions have gone down too.
“What the grant allowed us to do was to buy the devices, these aren’t cheap. But when you weigh the cost of a device against the cost of a pregnancy they pale in comparison,” said Romer.
Costs for an IUD or implant usually range between five hundred to a thousand dollars. Many of the patients are uninsured and can’t afford the devices; others don’t want to go through insurance companies because they don’t want their parents to find out. Anita Sheetz is a certified nurse midwife with the Mesa County Health Department Family clinic. She said the clinics are especially important in more rural areas.
“There are no resources available for our teens or their parents to access here in Mesa County. There’s no identifiable teen friendly clinic,” said Sheetz. “And we’re trying to implement some major changes at the health department to make it a teen friendly clinic.”
Without the private grant some clinics such as Children’s Hospital say their funding will be cut in half.
“We actually put out an appeal saying look at the results and can you help makeup what we were trying to get from the state general fund and legislature,” said Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment Executive director Larry Wolk. “Other funders have stepped up and said we’d like to help you on an emergency, contingency or even a bridge basis so that we can get through this next year.”
But Wolk does want to come back to the state legislature next year and try to get $5 million again to fund the program through the state and even expand it to more clinics that serve lower income young women.
“It’s good public investment,” said Wolk. “It’s not fair that we have to keep going to the private or foundation community to fund something that is saving the state money.”
While Democrats backed the measure, many Republicans voted against it.
“I like the idea right now that it’s educational and giving options to women,” said Representative Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park). “I’m fine with it existing under private funding.” But Lawrence doesn’t want the state to fund it and voted against the bill during the legislative session earlier this year. She said it would less efficient.
“Because we didn’t fully fund it from the state private money is coming in. That tells me there is a desire in the private sector to fund this and I don’t see what the state needs to step in,” said Lawrence.
For some other Republicans the problem was the program itself, they believe providing contraception encourages promiscuity. The proposal cleared the Democratic controlled House and failed in the Republican held Senate. Larry Wolk points to another concern.
“One of the criticisms from the GOP was that the affordable care act was supposed to pay for these devices so why should we pay twice. What we found was that a lot of insurance companies aren’t complying with the affordable care act to cover these.”
But not every GOP lawmaker was against it. Representative Don Coram (R-Montrose) sponsored the funding bill. He’s a strong backer but doesn’t think he can convince enough of his colleagues to support it next year.
“I wouldn’t expect a lot of change, with that said, this program is very, very positive in my district. I had real solid Republicans come to me and say thank you for running the bill,” said Coram.
For people working within the program like Liz Romer at Children’s Hospital, where the funding comes is less of a concern than making sure it continues to help more women avoid an unintended pregnancy.
“The challenge is so much progress has been made that it doesn’t make sense for Colorado to go back to the funding levels we had before,” said Romer.
For now that appears the money is not in jeopardy, at least for the next year.