Planned Parenthood's California branch braces for loss of federal funding

Planned Parenthood's Pasadena clinic.
Planned Parenthood's Pasadena clinic.
Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

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Janelle, a 26-year-old from Sierra Madre, is a big Planned Parenthood fan, and she says it's all because of her frequent urinary tract infections.

In a conversation at Planned Parenthood's Pasadena clinic, she says she used to visit other community clinics, and was made to wait for hours to get tests that would confirm what she already knew.

Janelle, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, was thrilled to discover that Planned Parenthood has a completely different approach. The organization says women know when they have a UTI, so it's developed an app that lets patients get antibiotics without being tested.

"You just tell them your symptoms and then they give you the prescription," she says. "Two hours later they'll have it at your Walgreens."

Asked about House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wisconsin) vow to defund Planned Parenthood, Janelle says, "I don't know what I'd do."

With Donald Trump assuming the presidency on Friday, the Republican-controlled Congress now appears positioned to cut federal support for the organization.

If that happens, Planned Parenthood would no longer receive reimbursements from Washington for treating poor patients. Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California projects that would translate to a loss of $260 million in annual federal support — or about 80 percent of the organization's operating budget.

And Medi-Cal recipients like Janelle might have to go elsewhere for reproductive health services.

"Even with my frequent UTIs, I don't want to sit all day in the clinic," she says. "You have to take time off from work and you're already poor."

'The trusted aunty of young people'

Republicans have targeted Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions. The organization can't use federal dollars for the procedure, but critics say taxpayers are indirectly funding it.

Planned Parenthood says abortions comprise just 3 percent of its health services. The Washington Post says this figure is accurate but also misleading, since abortions cost more – and are more complicated - than other services it provides.

Besides abortions, Planned Parenthood also offers birth control, tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections and screenings for breast and cervical cancer.

A lot of its patients are fiercely loyal because of the manner in which it provides these services.

"They're going to be really nice and really friendly and they're going to quell your fear and they're going to be welcoming," says Stephanie, 29, of Sierra Madre.

Stephanie, who also asked to use only her first name, says when it comes to these intensely personal reproductive issues, Planned Parenthood makes her feel safe.

"It's good to know there's a place that's kind of a calm environment, where you can get help, where you're not feeling like you're being judged," she says.

Clinic staff say they hear this sentiment all the time.

"We're like the trusted aunty of ... people who can get pregnant ... and I just don't know that there’s another organization like that," says Sarah, a nurse midwife at the Pasadena clinic. She asked that we not use her name for security reasons.

'A substantial hit'

A huge chunk of Planned Parenthood’s budget comes from providing health care to low-income people.

If Congress defunds the organization, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California projects it would lose about $80 million in Medi-Cal reimbursements. It would lose another $103 million in reimbursements through Family PACT, a state-run reproductive health program for low-income people who don't qualify for Medi-Cal.

"It's a substantial hit," says Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. "And [it] would be a bigger problem for our patients. That's a lot of patients to have to try to find health care someplace else, when they already have a provider they know and trust."

In fact, it could be quite hard for patients to go elsewhere.

Planned Parenthood is a major part of the state's safety net, operating 115 health centers that serve about 800,000 women and men, according to Carmela Castellano-Garcia, president and CEO of CaliforniaHealth+ Advocates, which lobbies on behalf of California's community health centers.

"The footprint of Planned Parenthood in our state is tremendous," she says.

Without Planned Parenthood, there would be incredible stress on the state's other clinics, says Castellano-Garcia.

"To pick up the slack of Planned Parenthood would be extremely challenging," she says. "Our community health centers are already struggling to meet the demands that they are facing currently."

If Congress does cut off federal support, Kneer says Planned Parenthood will file a lawsuit in an attempt to restore the funding. And if that fails, she says the organization will ask the state to step in to fill the gap.