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Friday, 24 February 2017 15:07

Guest opinion: Planned Parenthood health services aren't easily duplicated

Written by  Sara Nichols/Open Arms Clinic

By Sara Nichols, executive director at Open Arms Free Clinic, Elkhorn, Wisconsin

As the executive director at Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, I oversee licensed medical volunteers who provide essential health care to uninsured individuals in Walworth County who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I do, filling a critical need for accessible health care for those who have few options.

 Our free clinic opened only five years ago when there were 13,000 Walworth County residents who didn’t have health insurance and the per capita household income was just over $23,000 annually.

After our first year, we found our average patient was a 43-year-old male with chronic conditions that limited their ability to work full time. These men were on the Medicaid wait list in Wisconsin for more than two years before they had found us.

NicholesSara OpenArmsAlthough we have helped about 500 people obtain insurance through the Affordable Care Act, many more remain uninsured for a variety of reasons. (More on why people remain uninsured HERE.)

There still are approximately 8,000 county residents who are uninsured and 40 percent of households struggle to afford basic needs.

Currently, our average patient is a 50-year-old female with chronic conditions, many with reproductive health issues, too. Our clinic is one of just two community health organizations that form a critical safety net for thousands of individuals in need within our county.

Planned Parenthood is the other critical health care partner essential to the health and well-being of individuals in our area.

Without these nonprofit providers in this community, our patients would have no other local, affordable health care resource.

As safety net health care partners, we work together to ensure our patients have access to the full range of needed services. Open Arms Free Clinic provides primary medical, dental, vision, behavioral health, lab and pharmaceutical assistance for underserved communities. Planned Parenthood provides preventive and diagnostic reproductive health care, including breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, STD and HIV testing, well-women exams and referrals for cancer treatment and other essential services.

 In the counties surrounding Walworth, health care access for low-income communities is extremely limited, particularly for patients seeking reproductive health care services.

Without Planned Parenthood, patients in Walworth and Racine counties would have no other reproductive health care provider to turn to, putting them at risk for undiagnosed cancers, STDs, HIV, unintended pregnancy and other poor health outcomes.

Despite this fragile network of health care for low income individuals in our community, Speaker Paul Ryan has announced his intent to introduce a proposal that would end Medicaid eligible patients’ access to Planned Parenthood’s care.

Blocking access to this essential care among our most vulnerable populations would have devastating consequences. Many of those who would be impacted already face disproportionate barriers in accessing health care.

If Planned Parenthood’s patients can no longer go to them for birth control or cancer screenings, many of them would have no other health care provider to turn to. The majority of the counties where Planned Parenthood has health centers, there is a shortage of medical providers, and many health clinics serving the underserved communities -- including my own -- are not equipped to provide comprehensive reproductive health care.

Planned Parenthood is an essential and trusted community health partner that we depend on.

When it comes to the health of women and families in Wisconsin, we should be working to protect and strengthen this care, not enacting policies that take it away. Planned Parenthood is a trusted health care partner.

I urge our elected leaders to hear from those of us who work to provide health care to patients every day that we need to protect and enhance these important points of access to ensure health care for all those in need.

Sara Nichols, master of public health, is the executive director at Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn.

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