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Stance On Texas Women's Health Program Depends On Party Affiliation

Women's healthcare has been a political seesaw in the Texas legislature the last few years -- from budget cuts in 2011 to budget increases in 2013.

Yesterday a Texas Senate committee heard how women's health programs were doing, with the answer falling along party lines.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says Texas has never spent as much on women’s health as it does right now, and she says she wanted to "set the record straight" during a hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee -- the committee she chairs.

"Last session, the Legislature prioritized women’s health and provided $240 million to reach an additional 170,000 women," Sen. Nelson said.

And because of that boost, "one, women’s health in Texas is now funded at record levels. Two, we have the capacity to serve more women in Texas than ever before," Nelson added.

Nelson and the  Republican lawmakers voted in 2011 to reduce funding to family planning services. Providers like Planned Parenthood lost all state funding. That led to a battle with the federal government over how to pay for the state's Women's Health Program, which provides coverage to low-income women who would be on Medicaid if they got pregnant. The state was forced to take over the program after the federal government stopped its funding because Planned Parenthood wasn't allowed as a health care provider.

"The Texas Women’s Health Program has expanded its provider network. In fact we’ve now surpassed the capacity we had under the federal program," Nelson said. "These are huge steps in the right direction, folks."

But critics say some of the new providers listed on the state's website don't have room to take on new patients, or don't accept Women's Health Program patients at all. Nelson says women and providers need to be educated about the resources available. 

"At the end of the day the job is to make sure that women don’t have to navigate from here to there to the other place through some complex maze of our rule-making or websites or anything else," said Kyle Janek, who heads the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. "That they go and say I want to be responsible for example with birth control. I want to get screened to see if I have cervical or breast cancer. They're trying to be responsible for their health."

Outside the hearing, opponents the state’s handling of women’s health say Texas isn't meeting the needs of low-income women and is focusing only on trying to limit abortions. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte – a San Antonio Democrat running for lieutenant governor – was among them.

"When women are not allowed access to affordable health care, when they have a state government that’s more concerned with closing clinics than offering comprehensive women’s health care, when they have a state government that is more concerned with having an abstinence-only, not factual-based sex education program in our schools...then that's when the decisions are made that are harmful," Sen. Van de Putte said.

Van De Putte says she hopes the Legislature will reverse its attack on women's health care, and even consider expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to help maximize federal dollars flowing to health clinics.

So far state officials have shown no interest in Medicaid expansion. 

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