No one should live without access to health care. But fulfilling that principle requires helping our population overcome many of obstacles in West Virginia, including our high poverty rate and our state’s rural landscape. Nineteen percent of our state’s population lives in poverty, the fourth-highest rate in the nation- and the poverty rates are even higher for women (21 percent) and for people of color (31 percent). (This op-ed was published on the Dominion Post’s editorial page).
One vital resource for ensuring access to care for rural and low-income West Virginians is the Title X Family Planning Program. The Title X program was enacted by President Richard Nixon in 1970 as part of the Public Health Service Act. It was designed specifically to prioritize the needs of low-income and uninsured people and is still the only federal grant program to do so. The Title X program provides low- or no-cost access to basic family planning care, including birth control, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, and regular well-woman exams.
Each year, Title X provides around $2.3 million in federal funding to serve approximately 70,000 patients in West Virginia, most of whom are low-income and underinsured. 91 percent of those who rely on Title X services are women, but men also benefit from cancer screenings and STI treatment. Sixty percent of all patients have incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $37,470/year for a single person. Family planning services covered by Title X funding are estimated to save the state and federal government $82 million per year in West Virginia, a significant return on investment.
Title X-funded health centers are often the only family planning facilities operating in our rural communities. In 2015, there were 146 Title X health centers across the state including health departments, hospital-based providers, and community health centers. Nearly all are located in underserved areas. If these clinics lose their Title X funding, there are no other providers nearby who would be able to step in and serve the same populations.
Unfortunately, funding for Title X facilities has been threatened by a Trump Administration gag rule that will limit medical providers from providing full and accurate health information to patients. The gag rule threatening Title X funding is deeply unpopular with both the public and health care providers. If this rule goes into effect, many Title X providers will no longer be able to serve their patients and some will be at risk of closing.
West Virginia already faces serious challenges providing accessible health care, and the Title X gag rule would exacerbate these challenges and leave many West Virginians without affordable access to family planning services. Our policymakers should focus on expanding access to health care rather than rolling it back.