With the Legislature struggling to close a $5.3 billion budget shortfall, there hasn't been much talk of growing state programs this year. But lawmakers made an exception Tuesday when they took public comments on a bill to expand family planning services.
Spending more on birth control to save on the medical costs that go along with unintended pregnancies was the theme of a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing on Senate Bill 5912, a proposal to make more people eligible for the state-subsidized Take Charge family planning program.
“This bill is a big deal, but it’s actually just common sense,” said Elaine Rose, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Votes Washington.
She said the proposal, which would make Washington residents who earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for Take Charge, made sense because pregnant women can get Medicaid coverage for their health costs at that same threshold.
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With costs of unintended pregnancies a burden on families and the state in tough economic times, Rose said, it made sense to pay more to prevent them.
According to predictions from the state Department of Social and Health Services, the bill would add about 11,851 clients to Take Charge over the coming biennium, prevent about 712 births and save the state about $4 million overall.
Take Charge, which began in 2001, is a Medicaid waiver program that covers contraceptives such as the pill, family planning counseling and health care services including Pap smears and breast exams for women and vasectomies for men. It doesn’t cover abortions. It’s administered by local providers including county health departments and Planned Parenthood.
Under current law, people are eligible for the program if they make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $29,420 per year for a family of two. The proposed new rule would expand that to couples who make up to $36,775 and individuals who make up to $27,225 per year.
Take Charge program manager Maureen Considine said the program began because Medicaid-sponsored births in Washington are a big expense.
She said the combined state and federal funds that go into paying for each Medicaid birth in Washington is about $9,000, but paying for Take Charge for a woman for a year costs about $300.
Also, the federal government pays a bigger percentage of the cost of family planning than the cost of births, leaving the state to pick up more of the bill in unintended, lower-income pregnancies.
Sen. Karen Keiser, a Des Moines Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor, said she had been surprised by the cost difference for family planning versus unintended births, and that had been part of the inspiration for the measure.
“It doesn’t take high-level math to figure out we are in a bad position in terms of choices, and women would be better off if they had more choices,” Keiser said.
But Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which heard the proposal Tuesday, said he doubted it would pick up support from Republicans.
He and other Senate budget writers had already agreed to smaller cuts to family planning services than Republicans had originally wanted, Zarelli said, and he thought the bill would spark intense policy debate in a special session that should be spent on the state’s biennial budget.
Zarelli said he and other Republicans were concerned in principle about adding money for family planning, even for programs that do not include abortions. That’s because money that goes to family planning at health providers such as Planned Parenthood could free up other funds to be used for abortions, he said.
During the hearing on the bill, he also questioned the assumption that expanding Take Charge would save Washington money, pointing out that the total amount the state spends on Medicaid-eligible deliveries every year has gone up by about $128 million since the program began.