Millions of Americans who rely on the Affordable Care Act for their insurance coverage dodged a bullet last week when Republican infighting killed a bill by the House GOP leadership to repeal and replace the healthcare law. So, thankfully, did Planned Parenthood. Embedded in the bill was a provision to bar federal funding temporarily for this well-regarded and crucial healthcare provider, which the GOP has tried, obsessively, to dismantle for years.
If only that were the end of it. Sadly, congressional Republicans may take another go at defunding Planned Parenthood in the omnibus spending bill (formally known as a "continuing resolution") that must pass by April 28 to keep the government running.
So let's remind legislators, again, how short-sighted and harmful it would be to single out Planned Parenthood, not in an effort to improve healthcare, but in an attempt to punish it for also providing legal and safe abortions — none of which are financed with federal dollars. (Congress routinely prohibits federal dollars from being spent on abortions.) And abortions comprise a tiny fraction of the services the organization's clinics perform; Planned Parenthood estimates that abortions represent only 3% of the care provided by the organization.
About 2.5 million people — women and men — are seen annually at Planned Parenthood clinics. They come for breast examinations and cervical cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, contraception and family planning, urinary tract infection treatments and other primary care services. Many of the clinics' patients are lower-income, and almost all of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives is through health programs aimed at low-income Americans: Medicaid and Title X Family Planning grants.
Planned Parenthood clinics in California get nearly 1.5 million patient visits each year. To help pay for those services, the organization's California branch received about $260 million in Medicaid reimbursements in the fiscal year ending in June 2016. Nationwide, the organization got about half a billion dollars in federal funding in the year ending in June 2015, the vast majority of it from Medicaid as reimbursements for services its clinics provided.
A February letter to lawmakers signed by nearly two dozen national associations of healthcare professionals and public health groups emphasized how essential Planned Parenthood clinics are to the network of healthcare providers in the country: "More than 50% of Planned Parenthood health centers are in areas with health professional shortages, rural or medically underserved areas," the letter states. "Policies that would exclude Planned Parenthood from public health funding would hurt millions of patients and undermine health care access in communities across the country."
Nor is the public crying out for Congress to freeze out Planned Parenthood. In fact, recent polls suggest that most voters support the organization and want its funding to continue. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month showed that 61% of registered voters opposed cutting federal aid for Planned Parenthood. (The number went up to 80% when it was explained that federal funding for the provider cannot be used for abortions.) According to Planned Parenthood officials, supporters made more than 122,000 phone calls to members of Congress over the last several months and organized more than 1,000 events across the country to demonstrate their support.
Finally, the effort to penalize Planned Parenthood through the continuing resolution seems sure to trigger another dysfunctional Washington meltdown that could hurt Republicans politically. Senate Democrats won't abide a move to defund Planned Parenthood any more than they did the House GOP's efforts to "defund Obamacare" in 2013. If the House GOP insists on including Planned Parenthood in the resolution, the near-certain result is another standoff that shuts down non-essential government services, to the detriment of the party that picks the fight. That's you, Republicans.
The test for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is whether he can lead strong-willed members away from this trap, or if he'll be led by them straight into it. One might say it's a test for President Trump as well, but it's hard to tell where he is on the issue. Over the weekend he blasted the intransigent Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus for having "saved" Planned Parenthood and Obamacare by withholding support from the leadership's repeal-and-replace bill. But on Monday his spokesman wouldn't say whether Trump wanted to take another crack at Planned Parenthood in the continuing resolution.
If he's as savvy as he claims to be, he'd recognize a doomed mission when he sees it. Republicans should do the right thing and stop their crusade against Planned Parenthood. In the end, there is no political, economic, or public health gain to continuing it.