HELENA – When Jennifer Strickley first learned she had ovarian cancer, it was Planned Parenthood that detected the disease.
She had been going to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Billings for about a decade, as the discounts on Pap tests, contraception and regular checkups provided an essential break for the single mom working without health insurance as a waitress to support her two kids.
So when she found lump on her abdomen in 2011, that’s where she went to get it checked out.
Strickley is one of 26,000 Montanans who rely upon clinics that receive federal family planning and preventive health funds in the form of Title X.
But the Montana House unanimously passed a state budget that excludes these funds — some $4.5 million — accounting for 30 percent of the budgets for 20 community clinics and five Planned Parenthood Clinics in the state.
These clinics rely on Title X funding for reproductive and preventative health services, including cancer and sexually transmitted disease screening, STD treatment, contraception and health counseling.
House legislators praised the smooth passage of the budget bill that excluded Title X and passed in a unanimous vote in the House and is now in the Senate.
However, Planned Parenthood Communications Manager Lindsay Love said the unanimous vote indicated a backdoor compromise that left a gaping hole in the budget in family planning funding. Democrats may not have spoken out because they didn’t want to risk funding for other important education and health programs that remained in the budget, but Love said she fears the cuts could force some clinics to close their doors.
If they remain, other clinics may have to cut their hours and patients will have to endure longer waits — all measures that would result in patients not getting access to the health care they need, and will adversely affect the lives of thousands of men and women across the state, Love said.
“When we invest resources in this kind of health care, we are improving the lives of women and men,” Love said.
But critics say the main argument against Title X centers around abortion and Planned Parenthood’s political activism.
Federal law says Title X money can’t fund abortions. But Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, said that any money that goes to Planned Parenthood indirectly funds the procedure that Republicans disagree with fundamentally.
Priest, who served on the Joint Subcommittee of Health and Human Services and led the opposition to Title X funds, said Republicans aren’t against affordable health care for women.
He says his party stands against Planned Parenthood because of the organization’s inability to separate politics from health care.
“I think we don’t like the idea that we are funding our political opponents with taxpayer dollars,” Priest said.
Complicated loopholes make it easier for the organization to raise money for abortion services, Priest said. Though Title X may not directly fund abortion, that money helps Planned Parenthood raise additional funding to subsidize abortions and support the political opposition— and Republicans can’t support that, he said.
Love maintains that federal law explicitly prohibits the use of Title X money to fund abortions, but Montana does use state Medicaid money to fund abortion. Other funding sources stem from private insurances, donations, and individual payers, she said.
“Unfortunately there … is some willful ignorance,” Love said. “Because politics is so often injected into women’s health, it’s easy for some elected officials to lose sight of the actual merits of the programs and get caught up with the rhetoric instead of the facts.”
Without family planning services provided by Title X-funded clinics, the number of abortions in Montana would go up by 114 percent, while the number of unintended pregnancies will rise by 62 percent, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
But for some people, like Strickley, this argument isn’t about abortion rights. It’s about access to medical care, and not just screening and birth control. Planned Parenthood Billings West is where she learned she was pregnant with her daughter, who is now 11 years old and her son, who is now 3.
When Strickley returned to Planned Parenthood to see a doctor about the lump on her abdomen, they discovered that her ovaries had swollen to the size of grapefruits. The sent her to an oncologist where her fears were confirmed — she had stage three ovarian cancer.
After months of chemotherapy, Strickley beat the cancer into remission. Last semester, she enrolled at Montana State University Billings at age 35 to pursue a Health Promotional Degree — and then the cancer came back.
Strickley has put her studies on hold now that the ovarian cancer has returned and she received an additional diagnosis of breast cancer.
She is throwing all her energy into defeating the disease. She knows her chances of survival are minimal, but is confident she can beat it.
And what’s happening in the Legislature isn’t just background noise for her. Without Planned Parenthood’s detection of cancer the first time, she doesn’t know if she would be alive today, she said.
Sen. David Wanzenreid, D-Missoula, said has received more than 800 emails from people like Strickley, demanding the funding be reinstated. He said Senate Democrats are currently writing amendments in an attempt to put the money back into the bill.
The budget bill has yet to be taken up on the Senate floor, but the minority leadership is confident they will be able to restore Title X funds with the help of some Republicans.
“I hope this doesn’t become a partisan issue,” Wanzenreid said. “In the past it appears to have had partisan overtones, but this is an issue that is way too important for that to happen.”
That’s a sentiment that Strickley can get behind. She remains adamant in her support of Planned Parenthood and wants to see a Montana that gives future generations the same care she received.
“When my daughter gets to the appropriate age,” Strickley said, “we are walking right back in there.”
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