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Maine Family Planning Rejecting Federal Funds Over Abortion ‘Gag Rule’

Maine Family Planning is giving up $2 million in federal funding rather than comply with new Trump administration rules that dictate what providers can tell clients about abortion.

Title X funding has supported a network of reproductive health care clinics around the state for nearly 50 years. The non profit will continue to provide abortions, but it’s unclear how they’ll make up the funding loss.

The Title X program distributes federal grants to provide reproductive health services for low-income patients, including cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted infections and family planning.

Federal money can’t be used for abortions except in extreme circumstances. But under new rules in the Trump administration, recipients of Title X funds can’t make referrals for abortion, even if a patient specifically asks.

“It did allow us to give a list to the woman, but they had to be prenatal providers on that list, of which one of them could be providing abortion care. But we could not tell them which one on the list provided abortion care,” says Maine Family Planning senior vice president of program services Evelyn Kieltyka.

Kieltyka says the rule restricts providers from discussing a legal medical procedure. Between that change and others, including a requirement that Title X grantees who offer abortions erect complete physical separation for that service, Maine Family Planning made the difficult decision to withdraw from the program.

“To continue to take the funding and live within these rules is unethical,” she says.

It’s a $2 million funding loss. Maine Family Planning is the sole Title X grantee for the state and distributes those funds to dozens of health care providers. Those range from 18 of its own clinics to Federally Qualified Health Centers and school-based clinics, including one at Calais High School.

Calais Superintendent Ron Jenkins says he’s not sure how much Title X funding the health center receives, but it serves about 70 percent of its 7th-12th grade students.

“To lose any component of that in a county like Washington County is quite devastating,” he says.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England also receives Title X funding — about $400,000 to support four clinics. Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg says the organization supports Maine Family Planning’s decision to withdraw from the program and forgo funding.

“We are in agreement with Maine Family Planning that what the Trump administration is asking health providers to do is unacceptable,” she says.

Clegg says Planned Parenthood is committed to continue serving its low-income patients. But she says Congress needs to take action.

“The House, in their budget document, has put a fix in to restore the Title X program to the rules prior to the gag rule. And now it’s really up to the Senate to see if they’ll do the same,” she says.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine called the Trump administration’s rule a “dangerous” policy in a press release and pledged to make sure Americans don’t lose access to health care.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine issued a written statement saying she has repeatedly opposed attempts to impose what she calls “gag orders and burdensome requirements” on Title X funding. She sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar last year opposing the rule.

At the state level, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills denounced the Trump administration rule as being grounded in ideology instead of public health. She pledged to work with Maine Family Planning to determine whether the state can help. Maine Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon also said she’ll do everything she can to support the nonprofit’s health services.

For the time being, Kieltyka says all of Maine Family Planning’s clinics will remain open, and they’ll dip into financial reserves to support other Title X recipients. But she stresses that’s a short term solution.

“We’ll continue to fund them through the end of July, and then we’re actively looking at how we continue to make services available,” she says.

As Maine Family Planning explores its options, it’s continuing its court battle over the Title X rule. On Tuesday, it filed an appeal to a request for an injunction against the gag rule that was denied. It’s one of several legal challenges filed across the U.S.

Originally published July 15, 2019 at 3:00 p.m. ET.