Health officials seek new route for birth-control funds

The Durango Herald

Successful LARC program failed to receive support during 2015 legislative session
State health officials hope to ease political pressure surrounding a program that provides long-acting reversible contraceptives by including a funding request as part of an overall package of family planning services. A funding proposal failed during the last legislative session over fears that the devices induce abortion.

DENVER – State health officials have requested more than $2.5 million for family planning services, which would include funding for long-acting reversible contraceptives.

The budget request – which must be approved by the Legislature – comes after the last legislative session, in which so-called LARC funding became a political football. Some Republicans blocked funding for the program, concerned that the contraception induces abortion.

The legislation would have provided $5 million to expand the LARC program, aimed at addressing the birth rate for low-income, young women.

Health officials say the program lowered the teen birth rate in Colorado by nearly half between 2009 and 2014, a statistic that has been hailed nationally. The state received a prestigious award from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association for having the premiere public-health access program in the country.

In La Plata and Archuleta counties, the teen pregnancy rate between 2009 and 2014 dropped by an impressive 67 percent, according to the San Juan Basin Health Department. The department has provided 587 long-acting reversible contraceptives since 2009.

“We support the opportunity for all women to plan and space their pregnancies, as it leads to better outcomes for both mom and babies,” said Flannery O’Neil, spokeswoman for the San Juan Basin Health Department. “We also support any effort to bring more family-planning services, especially to the low-income from rural populations that we serve.”

Rather than make a LARC-specific request, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment requested funding in the upcoming budget to expand the full suite of family-planning services.

In addition to contraceptive services, family planning includes preventive health counseling and education, as well as reproductive health testing, screenings and referrals.

Legal questions existed last session as to whether the state could fund the LARC program through the overall package of family-planning services, or whether it would need to make a separate request. Recent legal opinions have left officials confident that they can make the request through the overall package.

By funding the program through the entire suite of family-planning services, it might make it more difficult to slash funding for LARCs specifically, as some lawmakers might not want to cut other programs that are part of the package.

“You could say this is in response to some of those detractors, to say, ‘Why not be more inclusive?’” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for CDPHE. “You could say we heard that, so we’re trying to be more broad-based in our approach.”

Wolk could not provide a specific dollar amount that would be applied to the LARC program, pointing out that some funding comes from services provided under the Affordable Care Act. He added, however, that a “good portion of it would be directed toward LARC.”

Still, Republicans who might be opposed to the legislation could try to strip funding through amendments to the state budget.

The abortion debate revolves around the fact that intrauterine devices, or IUDs, act as a hormonal barrier, making it unlikely that there would be implantation of a fertilized egg. But in rare cases, the egg can become fertilized even with the device, despite it stopping the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

Republicans who opposed the funding suggested that the program should operate off private dollars. Initial funding for the program came from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, fueled by billionaire Warren Buffett. That information had been kept a secret until only recently.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, bucked many in his own party last session when he co-sponsored the legislation requesting $5 million to expand the program. He hopes including the request in the overall family-planning package might ease some of the politics.

“I would guess that this year, hopefully, they’ll pick their battles,” Coram said. “This is probably not going to rise to the top of spending a lot of political capital on.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com