In a political gambit to prove that they love fetuses more than anything else in the whole world, Texas lawmakers have put their constituents at higher risk of an HIV outbreak. The Texas Observer reports that since the state ended its 28-year HIV-prevention contract with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which covers the Houston area, at the end of last year, one of the three counties that was supposed to take over the program hasn’t conducted a single HIV test.
PPGC used to get $600,000 per year from the Department of State Health Services to provide HIV testing, prevention education, and condoms to Texas residents. In the wake of last year’s attack on Planned Parenthood by video-camera–wielding anti-abortion activists who have now been indicted in Texas on felony charges, the state opted to let PPGC’s contract expire and divert those funds to three county health departments in Harris, Galveston, and Fort Bend counties.
Harris, which encompasses the city of Houston, got the bulk of the HIV-prevention funds: $250,000. In the five months since it took on the contract, it hasn’t done a single thing. Galveston and Fort Bend began testing patients in March and May, respectively. PPGC estimates that, in those five months, it would have already provided 2,900 HIV tests and given out 165,000 condoms. The former head of PPGC’s HIV-prevention initiative, who’d served in that role for 13 years, was laid off with her seven-person staff when the state ended its contract with Planned Parenthood at the end of last year.
This gap in essential public-health services, which anti–Planned Parenthood state officials promised would not occur in the handoff, is doubly shameful because Harris County has an HIV-diagnosis rate that’s almost twice as high as the Texas average. Nearly 23,000 HIV-positive people live in Harris County, where 25 percent of Texas’ new HIV diagnoses crop up, the Observer reports, and Planned Parenthood played an integral role in identifying new cases to help prevent transmission:
From 1988 to 2015, Planned Parenthood tested more than 138,000 people in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, Brazoria and Montgomery counties, and identified almost 1,200 individuals with HIV. The organization conducted testing and prevention at bars, colleges and jails. … [PPGC] provided about 575 HIV tests every month and distributed about 33,000 condoms.
Outrageous as it is, this news isn’t surprising: Case studies elsewhere have shown that—surprise!—limiting patients’ health-care options and transferring long-running programs to hostile state governments makes critical services less accessible and less affordable for those who need them most. When Planned Parenthood sued Texas over its illegal move to strike the clinics from its Medicaid rolls, the organization warned that it would drastically limit low-income patients’ access to health care. In the years after Texas struck Planned Parenthood from its publicly funded women’s health-care program in 2011, tens of thousands of women dropped from its roster. Harris County’s denial of HIV-prevention services could trigger a bona fide public-health crisis: Southeastern Indiana’s ongoing HIV outbreak began in 2013, when funding cuts closed a Planned Parenthood facility, the only HIV-testing location in the area.
Planned Parenthood is currently fighting a similar fight in Florida, where state lawmakers voted to ban Medicaid recipients from receiving health care at any clinic with any association to an abortion provider. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that as many as 650,000 people would experience a reduction in health-care access within a year of blocking public health funds from Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide.
Texas’ deliberate neglect of crucial HIV-prevention services is a testament to the importance of Planned Parenthood’s public health programs. It also speaks to why lawmakers have no business making politically motivated decisions about essential health-care initiatives they know little about. When dim right-wing state representatives shrug off the potentially grave consequences of meddling with a decadeslong health program because it’ll look good if they can prove that they hate Planned Parenthood more than the next guy, they commit the people they’re supposed to serve to a subpar health system that puts politics before public service.