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A Premature Expiration of the Women’s Health Advocacy Committee

By GJ Sevillano

On June 15th, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed an astonishing 50 bills that were originally passed during the 85th Legislature Regular Session. The Governor has not vetoed this many bills since 2007. The bills vetoed by the Governor ran along a wide spectrum of legislative proposals: HB 2377, which sought to implement a highly bureaucratic system for the continued development of brackish groundwater systems, was vetoed alongside, HB 1342, a bill to require child sexual abuse prevention training for public school students.

Among those vetoed was Senate Bill 790, which outlined a two-year extension for the Women’s Health Advocacy Committee (WHAC). The Women’s Health Advocacy Committee was tasked to advise the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) on women’s health programs.

The WHAC advised the HHSC during the development of Healthy Texas Women (HTW) and the auxiliary Family Planning (FP) Program, two state-funded programs that purportedly ensure low-income women and families access to vital preventative services.

These programs are the result of the state’s decision to gut the state’s family planning budget and block Texas women on Medicaid from receiving care at Planned Parenthood, despite abortion care not being provided under the program. Because of that move, the state lost federal funding for family planning services, forcing it to eventually create these new-run services.    

Despite promises, the new programs have yet to fulfill Governor Perry’s promises from 2012 that women wouldn’t lose care.  According to an article in the Texas Tribune: “For the budget year, the program [HTW] has an average enrollment of 141,000 women. That’s less than the 176,577 who were enrolled in a previous version of the program in 2015. And its less than the 207,041 who were enrolled in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program in 2011.”

Yet, with the launch of these programs in July 2016, Gov. Abbott’s veto proclamation states:

“The [Women’s Health Advisory] Committee fulfilled its statutory charge after the women’s health programs at HHSC were successfully consolidated under the Healthy Texas Women’s Program, which launched in July of 2016. The Committee’s purpose has been served, and it should be allowed to expire as was promised when it was created last session…Senate Bill 790 does nothing more than extend the expiration date of a governmental committee that has already successfully completed its mission.”

Upon first glance, the rhetoric within Abbott’s proclamation is rather congratulatory. Abbott repeatedly says that the job of the committee was “successfully” done and has fulfilled the duties originally outlined in SB 200. However, when Abbott says, “it should be allowed to expire as was promised,” his overall tone is disturbingly dismissive, it almost seems as if the veto is some kind of reward for the committee’s hard work and the members of the committee should be glad about his decision to veto the extension.

However, the job of these programs is far from finished and the duties of the WHAC are far from being complete.

The relatively small number of women being served is dangerously alarming considering Texas has the highest number of uninsured peoples than any other state in the US, with an uninsured rate that is 1.75 times higher than the national average. Further, young mothers in Texas face a higher and increasing maternal mortality rate—the highest in the nation.

According to the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force’s 2016 Legislative Report more than 50 percent of all births in Texas are covered by Medicaid, but coverage for these new mothers end just 60 days after childbirth. Although these women are automatically enrolled into HTW, a state official said that the commission could not identify how many women have received services through Healthy Texas Women because this data is not complete until several months after the date these women receive the service.

Dr. Janet Realini, Chair of the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition (TWHC), gave a testimony pushing back against the termination of the WHAC on March 8, 2017. In her testimony, Dr. Realini says, “The need for the WHAC will be just as acute in 2018 and 2019.” 

The bottom line is that their work is far from over. She explains, “The programs [HTW & FPP] are still in their early developmental stage,” she continues, “all providers in the state are still adjusting to the programs’ new components.”

However with Gov. Abbott’s swift judgment and veto, it will be tough to identify ways to improve the programs’ effectiveness. According to a report conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, “nearly 1.8 million women are in need of state-funded preventative healthcare services.” And with the premature expiration of the WHAC, critical time is lost to observe and refine Healthy Texas Women and the Family Planning Program to ensure they are positively impacting and effectively battling Texas’ uninsured rate and increasing maternal mortality rate.

Gov. Abbott’s decision to veto SB 790 is detrimental to the active efforts being made to grant access to preventative healthcare services for women across Texas, especially young women of color and low-income backgrounds. Despite the creation of these newly developed programs, these already vulnerable populations will continue to face barriers in their pursuit towards healthy lives for themselves and their children. Moving forward, data collection regarding HTW and the Family Planning program need to be streamlined, coverage rates need to improve, and women must be able to access their provider of choice in order for Gov. Abbott’s claim of “success” can start to be realized.

GJ Sevillano is a 2017 YI Scholar originally from Los Angeles, California. He is an undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in American Politics and a certificate from the Program in American Studies at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey. His advocacy work reflects his passion and enthusiasm for political literacy and social equity.