A bill before state lawmakers would allocate $2 million to Maine Family Planning to make up for lost federal funds after the organization withdrew as a statewide grantee from the federal Title X program last year.
Supporters of the bill say Maine should step up to support the network of 50 health centers that relied on the funding. But opponents say Maine can't — and shouldn't — replace federal money that was given up voluntarily.
Those 50 health centers provide services to more than 23,000 Mainers each year. And supporters of the bill, including Washington County Republican state Senator Marianne Moore, say the centers often serve as patients' primary source of health care. That's the case in her hometown of Calais, where Moore says the clinic is a critical resource, "one we cannot afford to lose, especially since we have no gynecologists, no obstetrics in the Calais area. The closest one, they have to drive to Machias or Bangor."
A bill sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon would buoy this network of clinics that previously relied on Title X funding to offer low-cost reproductive health services, including cancer screening, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and contraception.
"If we fail to support this network, the impact will be felt disproportionately by the very rural communities and Mainers that already face significant health care challenges," Gideon says.
Gideon's proposal allocates $2 million in state funding to replace federal funding that was lost when Maine Family Planning dropped from the Title X grant program last August. The organization had served as the statewide grantee and distributed funding to its own clinics, Planned Parenthood, Federally Qualified Heath Centers, and school-based health centers.
Maine Family Planning President and CEO George Hill says the organization had no choice but to withdraw from Title X after a new rule changed the 50-year old program, "what we believe were unconscionable changes to Title X."
Under the so-called “gag rule,” Grantees are now required to erect complete physical separation between reproductive health and abortion services. Nicole Clegg of Planned Parenthood of New England says that's cost-prohibitive. And Clegg says providers can no longer tell a patient where to receive an abortion, even if they are specifically asked.
"So imagine if you went into your doctor's office and asked for specific information about a medical procedure, and they said ‘well I'm sorry can't give you information about this, but I can talk to you about this other option.’"
This dramatic rule change, says Clegg, compromises medical ethics and effectively forced providers in Maine out of Title X. She says the additional state funding would protect patients' rights to health care. But Republican Representative Kathy Javner says the state should not be asked step in.
"These funds were not lost. They were voluntarily given up."
And, Javner says, Maine can't afford to add another $2 million to its budget.
"This is just not something that I think is needed for our already burgeoning baseline. Especially when funding is there and it is being refused."
Other opponents, including Maine Right to Life and the Christian Civic League of Maine, say taxpayer dollars shouldn't go to organizations that provide abortions. Federal Title X funding cannot be used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. Supporters say Maine's bill would adhere to those same guidelines.
Updated 5:32 p.m. Feb. 13, 2020