Texas has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country. Until recently, teenage girls had a hard time getting access to affordable contraceptives through state health programs, and that’s an issue the state is tackling as it reboots its troubled Women’s Health Program.
Two months ago, state health officials made changes to the program, one of which was aimed at dealing with the state’s high teen pregnancy rate.
The People’s Community Clinic in Austin has been running a teen pregnancy clinic for 20 years. Dr. Ted Held, a doctor at the clinic, says they see about 300 pregnant teens every year.
“Our focus of the clinic is, of course, to support the teen socially and medically, but also to prevent recurring pregnancies in this population,” he says.
In Texas, about 20 percent of pregnant teens get pregnant again within a year of giving birth.
In 2011, Held helped researchers do patient interviews in an effort to figure out why this rate was so high. He says the answer was pretty clear.
“Access was really, really sad,” he explains. “I remember we had one patient who said ‘I tried my hardest to get an IUD, but I couldn’t find a doctor for less than 800 bucks. So, I had to go to Mexico to get my IUD, where I have relatives.’”
Because People’s provides contraceptive counseling and subsidized birth control to teens, the repeat pregnancy rate for its patients is closer to just five percent.
But this program doesn’t come cheap. Until two months ago, Held says the clinic was burning through limited federal funds. But now, the clinic is getting some state funding.
About two months ago, state health officials launched a new version of its program called Healthy Texas Women. They added providers and started allowing teens ages 15 to 17 in the program.
When they launched the program, Lesley French, the associate commissioner for the Women’s Health Services Division with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said that change was a direct ask from OBGYNS in the state.
“For doctors that’s been a concern...we know that women younger than 18 have needed family planning services,” she said. “And, so, now this program has been designed to meet the need they see in their community.”
There’s still some work to be done, though. For one, teen girls ages 15 to 17 enrolled in Medicaid/CHIP still aren’t able to get family planning services through the state.
But, state health officials say federally-funded programs are available to them.
Held says there’s also an important component of the state’s women’s health program that’s been slow to get off the ground: increasing access to long-acting contraceptives like IUDs for women in hospitals who have just given birth.
“It really hasn’t been implemented well, yet, but I am hopeful [the Health and Human Services Commission] will help us learn how to implement it,” he says.
Held says this change in particular could be a really important tool in preventing repeat unintended teenage pregnancies – and he says it’s pretty progressive of the state to roll it into their program.
Nationwide, there's been a dip in teen pregnancies in recent years. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, "improvements in contraceptive use" among teenagers led to the decreased rate in the last decade or so.