Health agencies refusing $8 million in federal money because of new, 'unethical' rules

SPRINGFIELD - All three Illinois organizations set to receive millions of dollars in federal family planning funds are declining them due to new rules they say are "unethical" and are keeping money "hostage" from impoverished patients.

Planned Parenthood of Illinois, the state Department of Public Health and Aunt Martha's Health & Wellness are refusing a combined $8 million in grants after a court allowed revised regulations governing the federal Title X program to take effect.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees the family planning program and proposed the new rules. In part, they don't allow medical professionals who work at clinics that accept Title X grant money to "perform, promote, or support" abortion procedures; mandate there be a "physical and financial separation" between clinics that provide abortion; and promote "family participating in family planning decisions," especially in cases of minors seeking health care.

Backers of the regulations say they ensure no taxpayer dollars are directed toward abortion procedures. But detractors warn they could prevent doctors from giving patients complete medical advice.

"The way that the (Trump) administration changed the requirements for being a Title X grantee, we wouldn't be able to comply with them because they are unethical," said Julie Lynn, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. "And this isn't just about women, and it isn't just about contraception - it's cancer screenings, HIV testing and treatment, (sexually transmitted infections) testing and treatment, annual exams, all of these things."

In a statement, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said it is "committed to working with grantees to help them comply with the requirements of the new final rule."

Illinois is one of 21 states challenging the constitutionality of the new regulation. In a news release published in March, Attorney General Kwame Raoul said, "Those who will suffer the most under the administration's ... rule are those who can least afford it: women, children and men who are uninsured, underinsured or living at or below the federal poverty level."

The economic impact of forgoing the grant money on each of these organizations is not clear.

Planned Parenthood is declining $3.5 million in Title X funding. It is using "emergency funds to supplement" what it is not accepting from the federal government, Lynn said. In the short term, its clinics will be fine, "but not for the long term," she added.

Under Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's direction, the Department of Public Health is giving up $4 million. That money goes to local health departments, health centers and hospitals, according to a government document.

"While I'm committed to bringing as many federal dollars to the state as possible, I refuse to sacrifice our values and allow vital care to lapse," the governor said in a statement Thursday.

To offset that loss, the department will use money from its fiscal year 2020 appropriation, Alex Hanns, deputy press secretary, said in an email.

"The Illinois Department of Public Health's mission is to ensure the health and wellness of people across the state," a department spokesperson said in an email. "We are committed to protecting the rights of women as they seek out quality reproductive health care. IDPH will continue funding its 28 grantees, ensuring providers can continue to provide services."

Illinois Republican Party spokesman Joe Hackler said the governor's decision was "wildly out of step with the public's views."

"In a state struggling financially, Governor Pritzker would rather turn away federal money funding life-saving, non-abortion-related medical care for women and girls because of his unrivaled zeal for forced taxpayer funding of abortions," he said in a statement.

And Aunt Martha's announced Friday it plans to notify the federal government it will forgo its slated grant of $500,000, though it is unclear what effect that might have on the organization.

In a statement, its chief operating officer, Audrey Pennington, said officials at the not-for-profit organization made the decision in "a continuation of Aunt Martha's history of standing up for the right of every person - woman or man, adult or child - regardless of income level or insurance status, to make informed personal medical decisions based on complete, accurate information."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services won a legal battle to enforce the revised regulations, while a larger lawsuit debating whether the rules are constitutional continues.

Andrew Bath, executive vice president of the Thomas More Society, said the regulations are almost identical to ones announced in the 1980s during President Ronald Reagan's administration. The Thomas More Society is a law firm based in Chicago that opposes abortion.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld those rules in a case called Rust v. Sullivan, deciding the agency authorized to oversee the Title X program should be given "substantial deference" in interpreting the law creating it.

When President Bill Clinton took office, those regulations were altered again.

"This rule-change is an attempt to implement a statute that intends to not give money to programs that provide abortions," Bath said. "That would mean abortion providers at Planned Parenthood wouldn't get Title X money unless they comply with the regulations. That doesn't mean there is less Title X funds or there will be fewer services provided by organizations. The people served by Title X will still have access to services, and virtually as easily."

Ameri Klafeta, a staff attorney at the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the change in regulations is significant for family planning providers in the state, especially Planned Parenthood. That organization specifically, she said, administers "very high quality, affordable reproductive health care."

"Especially in light of the Reproductive Health Act becoming law, the message in Illinois is that we should be expanding and ensuring access to reproductive health care, not restricting it," Klafeta said. "It is shameful to be holding a provider for health care hostage like this."

Mary Kate Knorr, executive director of Illinois Right to Life Action, disagreed. She said federally qualified health centers are more plentiful in the state than Planned Parenthood clinics, so "the narrative that Illinois women need Planned Parenthood is vehemently false."

That sentiment, that other health centers and community clinics could absorb the patient load from Planned Parenthood, is echoed by many who support the regulation change. According to a public policy analysis published by the Guttmacher Institute, federally qualified health centers "are an integral part of the publicly funded family planning effort in the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect these sites to serve the millions of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for high-quality contraceptive care."

Lynn added that while they make up only 18 percent of the 90 Title X providers in Illinois, Planned Parenthood facilities see 40 percent of the state's patients.

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