Today 62 million Americans struggle to access a primary care physician. Nearly half of them are low income, one-third come from rural communities, and almost 40 percent are minorities. This lack of access permeates our entire health system, where 80 percent of adults who visit emergency rooms in a given year do so because they have no other way to seek primary care. And it has profound public health consequences, since individuals who can’t utilize primary care suffer disproportionately from chronic disease and serious illness.
Knowing this, we are disheartened by Congress’s attempt to defund an organization that has dedicated itself to meeting community health needs for nearly 100 years.
Planned Parenthood is a key provider of primary care for women, men, and families across the country. In red states and blue states, crowded cities and rural towns, people come to Planned Parenthood health centers every day for diagnostic tests, counseling referrals, family planning, and a range of preventative and acute care services. Planned Parenthood is there for the elderly woman who needs a cancer screening and for the single dad taking his son to the clinic for a sore throat. It is there for the working family trying to find financial stability before having another child and for expectant mothers seeking prenatal care. It is there for the one in five American women who will receive care at a Planned Parenthood health center during her lifetime.
In July, an organization that lied about the nature of its work released deceptively edited videos to attack the Planned Parenthood affiliates who supply tissue samples for lifesaving medical research. Three congressional committees and more than 10 states have undertaken extensive investigations to address the allegations that Planned Parenthood illegally sold these tissue samples for profit. Not one of these investigations has produced any evidence to substantiate the allegations.
Nonetheless, the House of Representatives voted last week to stop federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That’s every dollar that supports the 400,000 screenings for cervical cancer and 500,000 breast exams Planned Parenthood performs each year. Every dollar that pays for the 4.5 million HIV and STI tests they administer across the country. Every dollar that delivers primary care visits, family planning sessions, and birth control prescriptions to populations that would struggle mightily to access these essential health services otherwise.
Planned Parenthood’s federal funding translates into care that cannot be replaced in a system already stretched to the brink. For every patient served by a community health center today, there are nearly three residents of low-income communities who remain without access to primary care. Over half of Medicaid providers are not accepting new patients. At a time when more than half of the infants born in this country are born to women eligible for Medicaid, Planned Parenthood is a vital provider of prenatal health services. Fifty-four percent of Planned Parenthood health centers are located in regions with a shortage of health care professionals or in rural or medically underserved areas; four of the seven Planned Parenthood centers here in Massachusetts meet those criteria.
There is no doubt that Americans hold a wide range of deeply and sincerely held beliefs about abortion and reproductive health care, both in their private lives and in the realm of public policy. But those are different conversations for a different day. Like all health care providers, Planned Parenthood is prohibited from using any taxpayer dollars to provide abortion services unless the patient’s life is in danger or she is a victim of rape or incest. If the facts ever showed that Planned Parenthood or any other medical provider illegally sold tissue samples for profit, we would want to see those providers held accountable for violations of federal law and medical ethics. But Congressional investigations have strayed from a clear assessment of medical facts and morphed into a political attack on something that should transcend partisan ideology — the ability of women, low-income families, and those living in rural or underserved areas to access basic health care.
Five years ago Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. In doing so, we made Americans a simple but profound promise: that the richest nation on Earth would no longer treat health care as a luxury or a privilege. Thanks to family health centers like Planned Parenthood, this country is able to keep its word to hundreds of thousands of people who our health care system too often and too easily excludes. Behind clinic doors, you won’t find criminal activity or a political battleground; you’ll find physicians who work tirelessly and without fanfare to make quality care accessible to every American. You’ll find families trying their best to keep themselves and their loved ones happy, healthy and safe. To defund Planned Parenthood is to turn our back on those doctors, these families, and our promise.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III represents the Fourth District of Massachusetts. Kate Walsh is president and CEO of Boston Medical Center.