Texas Republicans Who Dismantled Women’s Health-Care Program Now Trying to Save It With a Concert

The Texas Republicans who defunded Planned Parenthood and kicked the provider out of the state's low-income women's health program are now trying to fix their mistake with a benefit concert.

Sammy Kershaw performs in his music video for "Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer." SammyKershawVEVO / YouTube

Texas Republicans dismantled the state’s hugely successful Medicaid Women’s Health Program last year, kicking Planned Parenthood out of its group of health-care providers and turning down a 9-to-1 federal match in funds for contraceptives and cancer screenings for more than 100,000 low-income Texans, because the state didn’t want to contract with an abortion “affiliate.”

Now that enrollment in the replacement health program is down 25 percent, two anti-choice Republican legislators are trying to save the program with—wait for it, y’all—a fundraiser concert with country headliner Sammy Kershaw of “Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer” fame.

They’re not raising money for services, however, because the problem isn’t that the state has too many clients seeking care under the replacement Texas Women’s Health Program; the problem is that the program is losing clients in droves, so state Republicans are raising money for an “awareness campaign” to build a new website, letting Texans know a version of it still exists.

And thus, the benefit concert. As if the fact that tens of thousands of low-income Texans are going without contraception and cancer screenings this year is some cruel accident of fate and not the logical result of deliberate actions taken by the very legislators who are now trying to two-step right over their atrocious record on women’s health care.

Both Texas state representative Jim Keffer and state senator Jane Nelson have long track records voting against reproductive rights, and Nelson herself personally sponsored the 2011 bill that cut off state funding to Planned Parenthood during a legislative session that saw a two-thirds cut to state family planning funds.

The result of Nelson’s and her colleagues’ efforts? The state lost as a provider an organization that saw nearly half of the program’s clients and had to rebuild a program from scratch using state funds. Despite this, state health officials claimed that capacity would increase, and made promises about a better, stronger Texas Women’s Health Program without Planned Parenthood. But those claims have not actually materialized into a better, stronger Women’s Health Program. Indeed, enrollment in the Texas Women’s Health Program is down to 92,727 clients this month, from an all-time high of 120,590 clients last December.

I truly hope that all the TWHP has is an awareness problem, and that a slick website is all that is standing between low-income Texans and the contraception and cancer screenings they were getting last year.

But the TWHP already has a website, TexasWomensHealth.org, which Rewire first identified as having major problems with search functions and provider listings 17 months ago, and which to this day continues to recommend low-income women seek pap smears and birth control pills at, for example, Austin Radiological Services.

State health officials have been promising to fix the site for over a year; now they’re asking for donations to create a new one. One with more … awareness. But even the state’s health and human services department (HHSC) acknowledges that the kind of “awareness” the program needs has never come from a website or an advertising campaign: it came from Planned Parenthood, which actively sought to enroll its low-income clients in the WHP.

As HHSC spokesperson Stephanie Goodman told the Houston Chronicle, “We’re serving about 25 percent fewer women than we were a year ago. We have enough providers to serve more women so we want to make sure women know about the program. Under the Medicaid program, Planned Parenthood not only served many of the clients, they also helped their patients enroll in the Women’s Health Program,” she said.

It seems that state leaders are learning what many Planned Parenthood patients already knew: that the organization does not simply provide affordable health care, but also helps educate its clients about services and engages in the kind of community outreach efforts that individual doctors often don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to pursue.

Kicking Planned Parenthood out of the WHP didn’t just deny people access to their preferred health-care providers. It cut people off from a hugely successful, holistic system that was designed specifically to serve low-income folks’ health care needs, and which benefited Texas as a whole—by saving taxpayer dollars and increasing public health statewide—as much as it benefited individual patients.

A Planned Parenthood spokesperson told Rewire that if the state’s awareness efforts “help more women access health care, then that’s a win for Texas,” but that “if state lawmakers truly care about health and safety of Texas women, they should restore funding for state’s family planning program and restore women’s access to the full network of qualified providers” in the Women’s Health Program.

As entertaining as it might be to see state legislators cutting loose at a Sammy Kershaw show, the truth is that no fundraiser concert would be necessary in the first place if Texas Republicans hadn’t made pandering to their most extreme right-wing supporters a higher priority than preserving money-saving health-care programs for the neediest Texans.