By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 11, 2011

NASHVILLE – The political fight over taxpayer funding to Planned Parenthood for non-abortion family planning and health services has ended with a technical knockout in Nashville but went into another round in Memphis on Friday.

Under pressure from the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam, the Nashville-Davidson County Health Department reversed itself and told the state Friday that it will take over $335,000 in health services that have been delivered, under contract, by Planned Parenthood for several years.

But the Shelby County Health Department on Friday asked for and received an extra week to decide whether it can take over $748,000 in health and family planning services currently provided by Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis.

Currently, the Shelby County Health Department contracts with the state to provide $597,000 worth of those services annually, less than half the $1.35 million in federal Title X money allotted to Shelby, and Planned Parenthood contracts for the rest. The county notified the state Health Department in April that it lacks the facilities and staff to take over the services long delivered by the local Planned Parenthood.

But a political imbroglio erupted since the state legislature adjourned for the year last month – when anti-abortion lawmakers erroneously thought they had ended government funding to Planned Parenthood – and the Haslam administration asked Shelby last week to “think creatively” about how it might be able to take over the work done by Planned Parenthood.

The issue is part of a nationwide effort by conservative anti-abortion activists to strip, or “de-fund,” Planned Parenthood of all taxpayer funding. Right-to-life groups claim that the government contracts indirectly subsidize abortions, even though federal and state law prohibit taxpayer funding for abortion. No state tax dollars go to the non-profit agency; the state is only a conduit for the federal money.

Federal Title X funding (named after the relevant section of the federal Medicaid program) pays for non-abortion family planning services, including birth control counseling, drugs and devices, and health services like testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and screenings for breast and cervical cancers.

Two years ago when Republicans won a majority of the state legislature, lawmakers first tried to shut off Planned Parenthood but settled for a law change that said the Title X money must go to local health departments unless the departments lack the staff and facilities to deliver the required level of services. All county health departments do it in-house except Davidson and Shelby, the two most populous counties with the largest numbers of low-income people who qualify for the Title X services.

In March, the state asked Shelby and Davidson to take the full allocations of Title X money for their counties for the next fiscal year – and both said again that they couldn’t deliver the full level of services required.

Shelby County Health Department Director Yvonne Madlock wrote state Health Commissioner Susan Cooper on April 8 that Shelby is “not in a position” to take over the services provided by Planned Parenthood and would accept only the $597,000 it receives this year. The county health department has to supplement that money with $481,000 from the county to deliver the level of services required by the state contract. The county health department serves about 4,500 patients under the program.

Madlock said at that time that the county could take over the entire 10,000-plus caseload – including those served by Planned Parenthood – but it would take more than the full $1.35 million allocated to Shelby and six to 12 months “to develop the infrastructure, staff and systems necessary to double the family planning patient caseload.”

Anti-abortion activists, angered over the failure of their effort to de-fund Planned Parenthood by an amendment to the state budget, began an e-mail and telephone campaign asking the governor to devise some other way to divert the funding.

So last week, the state health department sent new letters to Davidson and Shelby counties asking them to reconsider. Davidson County did, saying it would take over the Planned Parenthood services but only if it was not tied to a specific number of patients.

Cooper granted Shelby an extension to next Friday to respond. State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told The Commercial Appeal last week that he is working to find alternatives to Planned Parenthood, possibly other non-profit community health centers or additional money for the county health department to expand.

The Davidson County decision was cheered by anti-abortion activists. Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said, “We are at long last moving towards the final stages of the Planned Parenthood shell game. It has always been the ambition of Republicans in the legislature to defund this organization. I’d like to praise the governor for working to completely turn off the spigot of taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood.”

Last month when it appeared the defunding amendment was added to the budget, Planned Parenthood of Memphis called the move a “calculated, politically motivated maneuver” and said it was “outrageous that extremists” in the legislature would deny women access to preventative health care.

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